Political theatre

Plays

Black Jesus

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Zimbabwe. 2015. The Mugabe Government has fallen and investigations into its abuses have begun. Eunice Ncube, working for the new Truth and Justice Commission, begins the interviewing of Gabriel Chibamu, one of the most infamous perpetrators of the horrors of the Mugabe regime. As Gabriel's trial and inevitable prosecution approach, Eunice begins to sift through the past – only to find that right and wrong, and guilt and innocence, are far less clear than she first thought . . .

This stunning play by Finborough Theatre Playwright-in-Residence, and one of the UK's leading political playwrights, Anders Lustgarten, is more urgent than ever. Black Jesus unpicks the political complexities of Zimbabwe through the devastating personal journeys of two very different people, both scarred by one of Africa's most notorious dictatorships.

Black Jesus was first read at the Finborough Theatre as a staged reading as part of Vibrant 2012 – A Festival of Finborough Playwrights: Saturday, 23 July 2011, before its first full performance at the Finborough Theatre on Tuesday, 1 October 2013.

Bully Boy

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Sandi Toksvig's Bully Boy is a play that tackles the challenging moral issues of contemporary military occupation and its effect on the mental health of serving soldiers. It was first performed at the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton, on 13 May 2011 (previews from 10 May). It was revived in a new production first performed at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton, on 24 August 2012, before transferring to the St James Theatre, London, on 18 September 2012, where it was the new West End theatre's inaugural production.

The play is written for two performers. Falklands War veteran Major Oscar Hadley, now confined to a wheelchair, is sent to a combat zone to probe allegations of severe misconduct by Eddie Clark, a young squaddie from Burnley and part of a self-styled ‘Bully Boy’ unit of the British Army. Eddie is accused of throwing an eight-year-old boy down a well during a military raid in the Middle East. As the interrogation develops, Oscar begins to discover that ‘truth’ in a modern insurgency can be a point of view rather than a fact.

In an Introduction to the published script, Toksvig writes: 'For someone who thinks of themselves as a pacifist I have written a lot about war lately. Perhaps it is not so surprising. We are all subjected to images of conflict every day as one faction or another shoots it out in Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan or Sudan or any number of other distant places which come home to us through the television. ... I began to read about the effect of war on the individual. In particular, Dave Grossman’s book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, which had a huge effect on me. ... When Patrick Sandford, artistic director of the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton, said he wanted to commission a play from me it was as if Bully Boy poured out of my head.'

The Nuffield Theatre premiere was directed by Patrick Sandford, with Anthony Andrews as Oscar and Joshua Miles as Eddie.

The revival at the Royal & Derngate and in the West End was directed by Patrick Sandford and David Gilmore, and designed by Simon Higlett. The cast was the same.

The Business of Good Government

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Business of Good Government was written for and first performed in 1960 in the village of Brent Knoll, Somerset. Telling the traditional story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, it focuses less on the divine and miraculous, and more on the geopolitical forces at play in Herod's kingdom.

Under threat of Roman invasion from the west and Persian invasion from the East, Herod is disconcerted to receive a party of Persian delegates, wise men, whom he fears are spies for his neighbour. Realising the threat that might come from a child born which might match and ancient prophecy, he issues an edict to slaughter all males aged under two-years-old.

In spite of this heinous crime, The Business of Good Government presents a not altogether unsympathetic portrait of that infamous king, in whom we can perhaps see echoes of calculated government policy in modern times.

Still, it is the goodness of Joseph and Mary, who parent a newborn, then bear it to safety out of a hostile kingdom, which shines through. The Business of Good Government is a traditional, if human, version of the story of Jesus' birth, and was first performed in Brent Knoll's Church of St. Michael, in 1960.

Cardiff East

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Set in Cardiff's east side, Peter Gill's new play offers a vivid portrait of a community the Tories thought they'd got rid of, and New Labour would prefer to forget. Cardiff East raises essential questions: What is family value? What does it feel like to be an immigrant in your own country? And most importantly, why don't the Welsh reach for the Armalite? Uncompromising and desperately real, with an undercurrent of ironic humour, Cardiff East builds towards an inexorable climax, which combines hope and tragedy in equal parts.

Cardiff East premiered at the National Theatre, London, in February 1997.

© Peter Gill, 1998

Certain Young Men

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

What are two grown men doing living together faking all the stupidities of a fake straight relationship?

A sharp and poignant comedy of contemporary manners, Certain Young Men explores the lives of Stewart and Michael, David and Christopher, Andrew and Tony, and Robert and Terry.

Certain Young Men premiered at the Almeida Theatre, London, in January 1999.

A Change of Tenant

Aurora Metro Books
Type: Text

The play examines the reasons why Squire Brooks has decided to evict his long-standing tenant of 30 years, a widow, Mrs Basset, despite the fact that she is an industrious, reliable tenant who pays her rent on time and looks after his property well. The Squire reluctantly agrees to her visit to plead her case. He reveals that the insuperable problem is her sex. Not having a vote, she will not be able to support his son in winning a highly marginal election. In the meeting that follows with his prospective new tenant, John Smith, the Squire is forced to question the wisdom of the ‘Mrs Bassets’ being disenfranchised when the ‘John Smiths’ of the world have a say in government. John Smith is a drinker and a fool, in debt and ignorant, and when he has bothered to vote at all, he has spoiled his voting papers. The piece is weakened by the stereotypical portrayal of both John Smith and Mrs Basset. In choosing to make Basset unremarkable, merely the embodiment of reasonable ordinary civic virtue, the author bases her argument on justice: she is visibly no less worthy of a vote than a similar man in her circumstances, no less worthy than was her husband. She is a version of a virtuous, suffering (albeit middle-aged) heroine, victimised by the heartless squire. Her ordinary virtues: concern for her neighbours, maintaining and improving the property, are contrasted to Smith’s fecklessness and selfishness. However, she also reveals more dynamic virtues in her response to the situation – a determination to be given the reasons for her removal and an intelligence and adaptability. She understands the processes of political persuasion ‘talking to people, giving away papers’, in contrast to Smith, and is willing to earn more, take in washing rather than keep chickens, if required, but finally these cannot make up for her inability to vote. She is sent away for ‘a vote is a vote, and nothing else however good and necessary can make up for the lack of a vote’. It is only when faced with Smith’s record of rent arrears that the Squire relents in his decision.

Children of the Sun (Trans. Mulrine)

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Maxim Gorky's play Children of the Sun is a Chekhovian family drama, written while its author was briefly imprisoned in Saint Petersburg's Peter and Paul Fortress during the abortive Russian Revolution of 1905. It was initially banned, but the imperial authorities allowed it to premiere on 24 October 1905 at the Moscow Art Theatre.

This translation by Stephen Mulrine was published by Nick Hern Books in its Drama Classics series in 2000.

The play's title refers to Russia's privileged intelligentsia, epitomised by Protasov, who is high-minded and idealistic but out of touch with the reality of life, especially for the working classes. The play is set during one of the cholera epidemics of the previous century, but was universally understood to relate to contemporary events, and has come to be seen as a prophetic echo of the coming revolution.

Chimerica

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

A powerful play about international relations and the shifting balance of power between East and West, Lucy Kirkwood's Chimerica is both a political examination and an engaging personal drama.

Tiananmen Square, 1989. As tanks roll through Beijing and soldiers hammer on his hotel door, Joe – a young American photojournalist – captures a piece of history with his camera: the moment when a lone man steps in front of the tanks.

New York, 2012. Joe is covering the presidential election, marred by debate over cheap labour and the outsourcing of American jobs to Chinese factories. When a cryptic message left in a Beijing newspaper suggests that the so-called 'tank man' is still alive and living in America, Joe is driven to discover the truth about the unknown hero he photographed.

The play asks urgent questions about the emergence of China as a global superpower, the impact and legacy of authoritarian government, and the decline of Western supremacy. It also explores the personal price paid by those who pursue the truth, whatever the cost.

Chimerica premiered at the Almeida Theatre in London in 2013 in a co-production with theatre company Headlong. It was an immediate critical success, receiving a clutch of five-star reviews. It subsequently transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End in June 2013 and was awarded the Evening Standard, Critics' Circle and Olivier Awards for Best New Play as well as the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.

The Collector  

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Henry Naylor's The Collector is a play about life in occupied Iraq after the 2003 invasion by the US-led coalition, as a team of prison guards become brutalised by war. The play is part of Henry Naylor's Arabian Nightmares trilogy, which also includes Echoes and Angel.

The Collector was first performed at the Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh, on 30 July 2014, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, winning a Fringe First award.

The story is told by three storytellers who, according to a note in the published script, 'speak directly to the audience, through the "fourth wall"’. There is Zoya, an Iraqi woman; Colonel ‘Kasper’ Kasprowicz, an American reservist in his forties, in charge of Mazrat Prison; and Foster, an American interrogator, female, twenty-four. Under Saddam, Mazrat was a notorious torture house where more than 10,000 people died; now it is under Allied command, and Nassir works there, translating for the American interrogators. He's local, pro-Western, determined to bring liberal values to his country and is about to get married to Zoya, his sweetheart. But when he is recognised by Faisal, a new prisoner and psychotic supporter of the old regime, Nassir's life becomes a living hell.

The premiere production was directed by Henry Naylor and performed by Ritu Arya (as Zoya), William Reay (as Kasper) and Lesley Harcourt (as Foster).

The show transferred to the Arcola Theatre, London, in November 2014, restaged by director Michael Cabot, and with lighting design by Ross Bibby.

Kathryn Barker Productions under the auspices of Kathryn Cabot launched their own tour of the show in autumn 2016, with the following cast: Shireen Farkhoy (as Zoya), William Reay (as Kasper) and Olivia Beardsley (as Foster).

Comment Is Free  

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

James Fritz's play Comment is Free is about a journalist caught up in a devastating media storm. The published version of the play was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 5 October 2016. An earlier version was performed in a staged reading as part of Old Vic New Voices in June 2015, directed by Kate Hewitt and produced by Martha Rose Wilson.

The play is presented as a text featuring hundreds of voices. According to an author's note, 'It should feel noisy – things should overlap, and not everything needs to be heard.' The action centres around a columnist and political commentator, Alistair Cooper, who is constantly in the news because of his inflammatory opinions. Alistair's voice is heard only through his answerphone message, but the play allows us to infer details of his public persona from the array of hostile voices ranged against him, including one voice that threatens to 'murder you and your wife slowly and then drown your daughter'. Alistair's wife, Hilary, insists that her husband's public persona is a 'panto version', very different from the 'real guy at home' who, she says, is 'a wonderful husband'. When Hilary's brother, Ben, warns her that Alistair's public image is getting out of hand, and that people are getting 'very upset', she dismisses his concerns. But then Alistair is found dead, the police come calling, and public opinion rapidly shifts in unpredictable ways.

The BBC Radio 4 production was directed and produced by Becky Ripley and performed by Rachael Stirling, Tobias Menzies, Alice Kirk, Alison Belbin and Jolyon Jenkins. The news was read by Neil Nunes, Susan Rae, Zeb Soanes and Ritula Shah, with Jonathan Dimbleby hosting Any Questions. ‘The Noise’ was voiced by Natasha Cowley, Luke MacGregor, Clare Perkins and Gavi Singh Chera, alongside hundreds of crowdsourced contributors from across the country.

The production went on to win both the Tinniswood and Imison Awards for Audio Drama.

A term denoting theatre used for political purposes, usually as part of a campaign or movement, sometimes as part of the work of a political party. At its loosest, it can have a wide application ranging from community theatre to consciousness-raising by groups with a specific identity such as women’s, black or gay companies. Its usage is often imprecise, overlapping with other terms like alternative, guerilla or radical theatre. Each country has its own tradition of political theatre. In the twentieth century the peaks of activity in the industrialized world coincided with two periods of social and political upheaval, the first and major one triggered by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its aftermath, and the second coming in the 1960s and 1970s. Common themes emerged – for peace against war, for democracy and justice against exploitation and tyranny – and common forms too, e.g. Agitprop. Most of this theatre was socialist- or communist-inspired, and often involved professionals working with amateurs in nontraditional venues. By its nature much of the work is ephemeral, but it has also had an important effect on the theatre world through inspirational practitioners like Piscator, Brecht, Littlewood and Boal.

from Colin Chambers, The Continuum Companion to Twenieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).