Political theatre

Plays

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.

Dying City

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Sparse, cruel and transfixing, Dying City is a crisp dissection of the impact on society of the war in Iraq.

Craig is a Harvard graduate student, who gives up his dissertation on Faulkner for military service. The play sways between the past, on Craig’s last night at home with his wife Kelly before he goes to fight in Iraq, and the present, when the widowed Kelly receives a visit from his twin brother Peter. Kelly is a therapist and Peter, an actor who has just walked out on the second half of his play, wants to talk about their mutual loss. Dying City slowly exposes the tensions strung between these relationships, pierced and overshadowed by the enormities of the war in Iraq and 9/11.

Shinn’s uneasy play, which premiered at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs in 2006, asks what happens when people and events apparently thousands of miles away affect the heart and soul of a city.

Echoes  

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Henry Naylor's play Echoes is a two-hander exploring aspects of colonialism, drawing parallels between the lives of a modern-day Jihadi bride and a Victorian pioneer. The play is part of Henry Naylor's Arabian Nightmares trilogy, which also includes The Collector and Angel.

Echoes was first performed at the Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh, on 5 August 2015, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, transferring to the Arcola Theatre, London, later that year.

The story is told by two storytellers who, according to a note in the published script, 'speak directly to the audience, through the "fourth wall"’. Tillie is a 17-year-old Victorian pioneer, while Samira, also 17, is a Muslim schoolgirl. Both are from Ipswich, but they dream of a glorious future abroad. Samira wants to help build a caliphate; Tillie, an Empire. Both are idealists; intelligent adventurers, with strong religious beliefs. Both are frustrated by societies which offer them few opportunities. And both would travel to the East, to impose their ideals upon unwilling peoples.

The premiere production was directed by Henry Naylor and Emma Butler, and was performed by Felicity Houlbrooke (as Tillie) and Filipa Bragança (as Samira).

The cast stayed the same for the subsequent world tour, until 13 September 2016, when Rachel Smyth replaced Felicity in the role of Tillie, for the shows at the Brisbane Festival and the Melbourne Fringe. In April 2017, at the 59E59 Theater in New York, Serena Manteghi joined Rachel Smyth, and took the role of Samira.

Eden's Empire

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Eden’s Empire is a powerful historical play about Anthony Eden’s infamous term as Prime Minister, a gripping account of power and political mistakes.

Fifty years ago, Britain propelled itself into a disastrous war in the Middle East. Condemned by the UN and accused of falsifying intelligence, the Prime Minister was left fighting for his political life against a Party disillusioned, a public betrayed and a wily Chancellor with ambitions to take his place.

Under the pressure of opposition to his war, Prime Minister Anthony Eden rapidly lost his grip on both the Empire and his health. Unable to control either the growing power of both the United States and the Arab world, or his own failing body, history would mark him as the worst British Prime Minister of the twentieth century.

Graham’s uncompromising political thriller explores with electrifying theatricality the events of the Suez Crisis, and the tragic story of its flawed hero – Churchill’s golden boy and heir apparent, Anthony Eden.

Eden’s Empire was first performed at the Finborough Theatre in 2006.

The Empire

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Acute, witty and painful, The Empire explores some of the lengths humanity is stretched to under the circumstances of war.

The scene is an empty room in an abandoned compound in Helmand Province, in the blazing heat. Gary, a British soldier, guards an injured young prisoner suspected of being a Taliban fighter. Hafizullah, Gary’s Afghan colleague whom he has graciously christened Paddy, smokes hash and tries to follow Gary’s sarcastic, seething English. Gary wants answers, Hafizullah just wants to make it through the day and the newly awakened prisoner thinks there has been a big mistake. Surrounded by intense heat and violence, the characters' moral codes are tested to the limit as The Empire dissects the politics of occupation, home and abroad.

The play was first performed in 2010 at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.

Enemies

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

1905. Russia is at a turning point. Zakhar Bardin is from the landowning class, but is now the uneasy owner of a factory. His managing director is determined to face down militant workers on a point of principle. But the shutting of the business has tragic consequences for everyone concerned.

Gorky's extraordinary play, which was written in exile and banned in his home country, presents a panoramic view of a restless society, with a bourgeoisie no longer sure of its own values, and a working class steadily facing up to the terrifying sacrifices ahead. Described by Ronald Bryden in the Observer in 1971 as 'a real discovery... the missing link between Chekhov and the Russian revolution', Enemies has a dramatic breadth, humour and ambition unique to Gorky.

Maxim Gorky's Enemies is adapted by David Hare and premiered at the Almeida Theatre, London, in May 2006.

An Evening at the Opera

Aurora Metro Books
Type: Text

Floy Quintos considers the misrule that has held many Asian countries back. An Evening At the Opera is a behind-the-scenes portrayal of elite and sinister power, echoing a Philippines that is hopefully gone.

The Exception and the Rule

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Exception and the Rule is a parable about exploitation, telling the story of a rich merchant travelling across the desert and being increasingly cruel to his porter so they can travel as fast as possible. When their water supplies run low, the porter offers him a drink from his water bottle, but the merchant thinks he is being attacked by the porter, and shoots him. In the following courtroom scene, the brutal logic of the judge finds the merchant innocent because of his cruelty.

The didactic Lehrstücke (or ‘learning-plays’) lie at the heart of Brechtian theatre. Written during 1929 and 1930, years of far-reaching political and economic upheaval in Germany and the period of Brecht’s most sharply Communist works, these short plays show an abrupt rejection of most of the trappings of conventional theatre. The Lehrstücke are spare and highly formalized pieces intended for performance by amateurs, on the principle that the moral and political lessons contained in them can be best taught by participation in the actual production. There is nothing in the drama of this century to match the precision of their language and the economy of their theatrical technique.

Fast Labour

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Steve Waters’ Fast Labour focuses on the growing culture of human exploitation in the UK focusing specifically on the experience of migrant workers.

In the Ukraine, Victor had a business, a family and a home, but things have changed and he’s fled to the UK in search of a better life. Now he’s doing everything from gutting fish to picking carrots. But he’s a strong-minded man who is determined not to stay at the bottom of the economic food chain forever. He decides to build a business of his own with the aid of two fellow East Europeans and his Scottish mistress. By offering cheap labour to a big shot gang master, Victor builds up a highly successful empire. But this rapid expansion exposes the hypocrisy at the heart of his business – by lining his own pockets he is necessarily cheating those illegal migrants whom he employs. Waters subverts an audience’s expectations by turning the victim into the perpetrator and also points to our own complicity in these exploitative working methods with our increasing consumer demands.

Fast Labour was first performed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds in 2008 before transferring to the Hampstead Theatre in London.

Fen

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Against the flat, bleak landscape of the Fenlands, men and women are cramped into bitterness by grinding labour and economic oppression.

Fen is composed of brief, fiercely resonant scenes, carving with powerful humanity the desolate lives of the village’s men and women. Three girls sing of being hairdressers or housewives when they grow up. Angela makes her stepdaughter drink water from the kettle. The representative of a City corporation purrs and placates her way to buying a farm that has been in the same family for generations. Ninety-year-old Ivy dreams aloud of union struggles. But the hard spine of the play is Val, a thirty-year-old who finds herself caught between her children and her lover – happy in brief moments, yet tormented past hope.

First performed in 1983 at the University of Essex Theatre, Fen is a flinty, eerie play, haunted by the ghosts of starving field workers and claustrophobic in its condemnation of agrarian and social exploitation.

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).