Political theatre

Plays

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.

The Contingency Plan

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

A double bill of plays from the frontline of climate change - an epic portrait of an England of the near future, in the grip of unprecedented and catastrophic floods.

On the Beach is set in an England in the grip of unprecedented flooding, glaciologist Will Paxton returns from months in Antarctica to tell his parents that he will take up a role within Government. Thirty years ago, his father silenced his own radical thinking on climate change. Yet behind the reunion with his father lies years of secrecy and bitterness. As the truth surfaces, the family is torn apart, and Will’s parents must face the rising tide alone. The dialectic between Will and his father is explored with an urgent intensity which reflects the state of national emergency in which England finds itself. Waters blends the personal with the political turning this large-scale play into a compelling human drama.

In Resilience, England faces an uncertain future as catastrophic flooding on an unprecedented scale is predicted to hit its battered shores. The Tory Government that has just come to power wants radical answers to the imminent floods. Their newly appointed expert Will Paxton (who features prominently in the first part of the double bill, On the Beach) posits an extreme scenario. He declares England, potentially from coastline to capital, to be in total peril. Tory Minister for Climate Change, Chris is blind to the realities being placed before him, much to the chagrin of Will and his colleague, Colin, the Government’s Scientific Advisor. Resilience shows that Will’s fight to implement a proper policy, built from scientific research, derives in part from the old familial wounds aired in On the Beach.

Resilience and On the Beach premiered as a double bill at the Bush Theatre in London in 2009.

Impressive in scale and chilling as a prediction of our immediate future, the two plays are complementary but can also stand alone.

Cordon

Aurora Metro Books
Type: Text

A group of Special Police in Belgrade incite a riot at a peaceful protest, maliciously beating a student. A harsh indictment of the brutality and corruption of the Milosevic regime. Banned throughout Yugoslavia.

The Cut

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Cut is the story of Paul, the dystopia he lives in, and a streamlined system of oppression with a monstrous, throbbing pain at its core.

In a government office, surrounded by administrative forms and directives, Paul administers the Cut. He isn’t used to doing it to someone so keen, but John is impatient, he’s fantasised about it, about emptiness, about being… free. Disarmed by John’s enthusiasm for the incredible pain of the Cut, Paul’s bureaucratic armour cracks to reveal a man tortured by his profession and by society’s disgust. Paul’s conversations with his wife - who doesn’t know what he does but only that he can’t stop crying - and finally with his son are sparse and serrated, as he struggles with his conscience and with his horror.

Ravenhill’s dark unspeakable symbol gives this story of oppression an indefinable and irresistible force.

The Cut premiered in 2006 at the Donmar Warehouse, London.

Daughters of the Revolution

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

David Edgar's Daughters of the Revolution is one part of a two-play cycle under the collective title Continental Divide, set against the background of a bitterly fought American governor’s election in an unspecified Pacific-coast state. Daughters of the Revolution centres on characters in the Democrat camp, while the other part, Mothers Against, examines the election from the Republican perspective.

Across the two plays, Edgar explores what has happened to the revolutionary fervour that took hold of both the Right and the Left in the 1960s, and how it has been carried over into the politics of the twenty-first century.

Both plays were jointly commissioned and produced by Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Daughters of the Revolution was first performed in the Angus Bowmer Theatre, Ashland, Oregon, as part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival on 1 March 2003 before transferring to Berkeley Repertory Theatre, with performances from 6 November 2003.

Daughters of the Revolution is an expansive epic theatre play about the diaspora of 1960s student radicals. Michael Bern is a Community College professor about to land a big promotion due to his connections with the Democratic candidate for governor, Rebecca McKeene. As a birthday present his partner, Abby, has tracked down his old FBI file relating to his days as a political activist in the 1970s. This leads him on a mission to find the informer who betrayed his revolutionary cell in 1972. Along the way he meets an ex-Black Panther, an old Marxist turned fervent right-winger, and discovers that his old friend Rebecca may have a dirty little political secret of her own.

The premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival was directed by Tony Taccone and designed by William Bloodgood, with a cast including Terry Layman as Michael Bern.

The play received its UK premiere at Birmingham Repertory Theatre on 6 March 2004, with the original American cast directed by Tony Taccone. It subsequently played at the Barbican, London, as part of their BITE Festival, with performances from 20 March 2004.

A Day At The Racists

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A Day at the Racists is a brave piece of political theatre. It both attempts to understand why people might be drawn to the BNP and diagnoses a deeper cause of that attraction: the political abandonment and betrayal of the working class by New Labour.

Pete Case used to be a leading Labour Party organiser in the local car factories. Now he struggles to get by as a decorator as immigrant workers undercut his best mate's firm; his son Mark can't get a job or onto the housing list; and nobody, from his Labour MP to his granddaughter's teacher, seems to care. Then Pete finds unexpected hope: Gina is young, mixed race and standing for Parliament on a platform of helping the local community. She is standing for the British National Party. As Pete's rage and despair gradually overcome his longstanding loathing of the BNP, he is drawn into the world of Gina's campaign and finds himself entangled in a nightmare of political machinations that pit his closest relationships – son, best mate, lover – against his longest-held beliefs and newfound aims. The play’s timely premiere was at the Finborough Theatre in 2010.

Days of Significance

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Days of Significance was written in response to Much Ado About Nothing, and follows the love lives and mortal fears of young soldiers departing their English market-towns for the deserts of Iraq.

The first act sees two young soldiers join their friends to stumble, drink and brawl before they leave for active service; the play buzzes with the coarse jokes, insults and confrontations of a night out, though there’s a nervous spark of true romance buried in the teasing confrontation. The second act sees the soldiers transferred to Iraq, where they are morally out of their depth, and fighting in a war they don’t understand.

Williams's play, which premiered at the Swan Theatre in 2007, looks at how the naive and malformed moral codes of these young men have catastrophic reverberations for the West’s moral authority.

Death and the Maiden

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden is a psychological thriller about a woman who, in a country newly released from dictatorship, seeks revenge on the man she believes to have been her torturer. Translated by Dorfman from his original version in Spanish, La Muerte y la Doncella, the play was first performed as a reading at the Institute for Contemporary Art in London on 30 November 1990, before receiving its world premiere at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs on 4 July 1991. It was later turned into a feature film directed by Roman Polanski and starring Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley.

The play is set in a beach house in a country that, according to a note in the script, is 'probably Chile but could be any country that has given itself a democratic government just after a long period of dictatorship'. Years have passed since political prisoner, Paulina Salas, suffered at the hands of her captor: a man whose face she never saw, but whom she can still recall with terrifying clarity. Tonight, by chance, a stranger, Roberto Miranda, arrives at the secluded beach house she shares with her husband Gerardo Escobar, a human rights lawyer and member of the Commission set up to investigate the terrible crimes perpetrated under the dictatorship. Paulina is convinced the stranger was her tormentor and believes he must now be held to account.

The play's first performances took place soon after Chile's return to democracy following the end of General Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship. In an Afterword to the published edition of the play, Dorfman explains that, although he'd had the idea for the play some 'eight or nine years' before, 'It was not until Chile returned to democracy in 1990 and I myself therefore returned to resettle there with my family after seventeen years of exile, that I finally understood how the story had to be told'.

The first reading at the ICA in London was directed by Peter James, with Penelope Wilton as Paulina, Michael Maloney as Gerardo and Jonathan Hyde as Roberto.

A workshop production was staged in Santiago, Chile, on 10 March 1991directed by Ana Reeves, with Maria Elena Duvauchelle as Paulina, Hugo Medina as Gerardo and Tito Bustamente as Roberto.

The world premiere at the Royal Court Upstairs on 4 July 1991 was directed by Lindsay Posner with Juliet Stevenson as Paulina, Bill Paterson as Gerardo and Michael Byrne as Roberto. The production moved to the Main Stage at the Royal Court on 31 October 1991, with the same cast and director.

The play then transferred on 11 February 1992 with the same cast to the Duke of York's Theatre in the West End.

The American Broadway premiere opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theater on 17 March 1992 directed by Mike Nichols, with Glenn Close as Paulina, Richard Dreyfuss as Gerardo and Gene Hackman as Roberto.

A feature film version followed in 1994, directed by Roman Polanski with a screenplay by Rafael Yglesias and Ariel Dorfman, starring Sigourney Weaver as Paulina, Ben Kingsley as Roberto and Stuart Wilson as Gerardo.

Destiny

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

First produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Other Place in Stratford in September 1976, Destiny transferred to the Aldwych Theatre, London in May 1977 where it received exceptionally high praise from a wide range of critics. The production established David Edgar as a major playwright, one of the most important of the young generation of dramatists to emerge out of the 'portable' theatre movement of the late sixties.

1947. The twilight of Empire in India. Sergeant Turner and his Colonel share a bottle of whisky in reluctant celebration of Independence. 'Do you think Mr Churchill will do anything about it, sir? When the conservatives get back in?'

1976. A bye-election in the West Midlands against the background of an industrial dispute involving Asian labour. A three-cornered fight between Labour, Conservative (candidate: the Colonel's nephew) and the up and coming National Forward party (candidate: Sergeant, now Mr. Turner) – a contest in which the issue of race cuts like a razor through the conventional cosy assumption of British politics, with alarming and prophetic results.

It is impossible to read David Edgar's play without feeling provoked into re-examining one's own political sentiments. Impossible also not to admire the skill with which he has woven so many strands into an authentic, gripping and theatrically effective play of impressive scope and power.

Diary of a Madman

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Pop Sheeran, proudly shouldering the family trade of restoring the Forth Bridge, is about to lose it all. A global corporation has bought this Scottish icon, bringing with them innovative new paint. How will Pop fight back when he realises he’s painting himself out of a job?

Diary of a Madman is a sharply political, witty new adaptation of Gogol’s classic story, reimagined in a contemporary Scotland on the brink of voting for independence. The play received its world premiere at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, on 5 August 2016 before opening at the Gate Theatre, London, in September 2016.

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).