Political theatre

Plays

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.

The Djinns of Eidgah  

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The play is set amid preparations for the festival of Eid, and uses the Kashmir conflict as an occasion to understand the issue of human plight in times of crisis, generated by contrasting and competing nationalist narratives. Instead of taking sides on the Kashmir issue, the play deals with its impact on the emotional, psychological, and social life of the people in the Valley, revealing how the conflict has turned “Paradise on Earth” into a zone of war waged between the azadis and Indian para/military forces, deployed by the state for preserving its “national integrity” and protecting the Kashmiris most of whom do not recognize themselves as Indians.  

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.

the end of history…  

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Jack Thorne’s play the end of history... is a domestic drama focussing on the lives of two political idealists and their children. It was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre, London, on 27 June 2019.

The play is set in a family home in Newbury, Berkshire, belonging to married couple Sal and David. The first act, set in 1997, sees Sal trying to cook dinner for the family. She and David have pulled off a coup and gathered their three children back home for the weekend. Eldest son Carl is bringing his new girlfriend Harriet to meet everyone for the first time; middle daughter Polly is back from Cambridge University for the occasion; and youngest Tom, still at school, will hopefully make it out of detention in time for dinner. But Sal and David would rather feed their kids with leftist ideals and welfarism than fancy cuisine, and as the action skips forward, first to 2007, and then in the final act to 2017, the impact of their idealism on the younger generation is both critiqued and celebrated.

The premiere production was directed by John Tiffany and designed by Grace Smart. It was performed by Kate O’Flynn, Lesley Sharp, David Morrissey, Sam Swainsbury, Zoe Boyle and Laurie Davidson. 

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.

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).