Political theatre

Plays

If Only

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

David Edgar’s If Only is a political drama set around the 2010 UK General Election and its possible consequences for policymaking. It was first performed at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, on 20 June 2013 (previews from 14 June).

The play's first act is set in the spring of 2010, before the General Election that took place on 6 May. The day after the UK’s first ever televised prime ministerial debate, a Labour special adviser (Sam Hunt), a Liberal Democrat staffer (Jo Lambert) and a Tory candidate (Peter Greatorex) are stranded in Malaga airport by a volcanic ash cloud. As they wait for their transport home, they consider their options in the event of a hung parliament.

The second act takes place in a church near Mons in Belgium during the summer of 2014 (hence in the future at the time the play was written and premiered). The three politicians meet again during commemorations for the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. In Britain, the right-wing UKIP (UK Independence Party) is rising and Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron is seeking to shore up his threatened position by co-opting his rivals' policies on immigration and welfare. But one of the three politicians knows something that could change the outcome of the 2015 election, and a series of complex political manoeuvres ensues as each of them seeks to outwit the others.

The Chichester premiere was directed by Angus Jackson and designed by Ruth Sutcliffe. The cast was Jamie Glover, Martin Hutson, Charlotte Lucas and Eve Ponsonby.

Ignorance / Jahiliyyah

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Ignorance/Jahiliyyah is another political play from Steve Waters that delves into the life and legacy of Egyptian poet Sayyid Qutb whose writings have come to shape relations between the West and radical Islamists.

It’s 1949 in small-town Colorado. A group of American students struggle to accept foreign student and Muslim Sayyid Qutb into their lives. Their unthinking behaviour will have terrible consequences that are to change world history. Qutb, disgusted by the hollowness of American society and what he deemed as its over sexualisation, would go on to become a major force in the Muslim Brotherhood in the 60s and 70s. He described the malaise at the heart of Western society as resembling ‘jahiliyyah’, which roughly translates as an ignorance of Godly values. In London, sixty years later, a university professor’s work analysing those consequences takes on a frightening personal dimension when student Layla Ahmad walks into his office.

Ignorance/Jahiliyyah premiered at the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs in London in 2012.

Immediate Rough Theatre for Citizens’ Involvement

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

'We were looking up texts for this book, and we came across a file full of fragmentary scripts (and notes for scripts) which had been a series of quickly-improvised topical plays and playlets got together in the west of Ireland and put on in houses, pubs, streets, meetings and so forth to answer immediate needs of the day.'

So the authors describe this collection of scripts etc. called Immediate Rough Theatre for Citizens' Involvement. Plays and playlets here include:

The Devil and the Parish Pump: a plot summary of an improvised piece describing a newly planned piped water scheme in a town named Corrandulla;

Sean O'Scrudu: an expansive short-play written in response to the sacking of a shop-steward from a multinational company based in Galway;

The Hunting of the Mongrel Fox: written after the sentencing to death by hanging in Ireland of two Irish anarchists named Noel and Marie Murray – who were charged with the shooting of an off-duty policeman – and the subsequent suppression of reporting on the case;

No Room at the Inn: a Christmas play highlighting the difficulty of providing shelter for members of the Irish travelling community;

Mary's Name: a plot summary describing a play about one woman's decision to retain her maiden name after she gets married;

and A Pinprick of History: a play which imagines a socialist revolution which has enveloped the entire world – except Great Britain.

Ink  

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

I want to tell you a story. And it's true. That's what makes it a good fucking story, right, 'cause all the best stories are true.

Fleet Street. 1969. The Sun rises.

James Graham's ruthless, red-topped play leads with the birth of this country's most influential newspaper – when a young and rebellious Rupert Murdoch asked the impossible and launched its first editor's quest, against all odds, to give the people what they want.

Ink was first published to coincide with the world premiere of the play at the Almeida Theatre, London, on 17 June 2017, in a production directed by Rupert Goold.

Interruptions  

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Stephen Jeffreys’s play Interruptions is a drama exploring ideas about democracy, politics and leadership. It was written while he was resident at the University of California, Davis, and first performed at UC Davis Main Theatre on 26 April 2001.

The play shows an imaginary country preparing for an election, undergoing a military coup, and then living through the consequences. There are about eighty different characters, each intended to reflect a different part of society. Each of the seven scenes (Politics, Game, Death, Food, Sex, Work and Song) shows a group of people engaging in a basic human activity, and being frustrated in their attempts.

In her Introduction to the collection Stephen Jeffreys: Plays (Nick Hern Books, 2018), Jeffreys' wife Annabel Arden writes: '[Interruptions] sprang from [Stephen's] fascination with the Japanese aesthetic principle of Jo-ha-kyu and his desire to create a particular narrative form to express our struggles with democracy and leadership.'

In an Author's Note in the same edition, Jeffreys writes: 'My fellow playwright, David Edgar, once pointed out to me the large number of scenes in Shakespeare which could be described as ‘interrupted rituals’ (e.g. the play scene in Hamlet, the banquet in Macbeth). I worked on this idea of a single interrupted ritual – including burial, circumcision, and negotiations for a wedding. Interruptions is my own contribution to the genre. It asks the questions: "Do we need to be led?" "How do we decide who leads?" and "What happens when there are no leaders?"'

The UC Davis production was directed by Annabel Arden with scenic design by Brian Garber. It was performed by Cara Burgoyne, Simon Burzinski, Diane DiPrima, Elias Escobedo, Michelle French, Virginie Magnat, Juan Manzo, Cooky Nguyen, Linda Noveroske Rentner, Bill Ritch, Damion Sharpe and Isaac Hirotsu Woofler. 

Jackets: or The Secret Hand

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Jackets sets out a resonant and poetic counterpoint between two scenes of martyrdom, a powerful dyadic commentary on the politics of sacrifice. Part One is set in eighteenth-century Japan and Part Two is set in modern Europe. The head of a boy is needed so it will appear that the prince has been killed, but the head needs to be convincing and must look like an upper-class boy. A dead solider is needed to increase the morale of the soldiers who are fighting rioters, and he needs to look like an officer so that the conspiracy will work. The play produces detailed and human portraits, the force of its argument emerging from their vividly drawn responses and the potent interaction between its two parts.

Derived from ‘The Village School’ scene of Sugawaraby Takeda Zumo, Jackets premiered in 1989 at Lancaster University.

Labour of Love  

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Labour MP David Lyons cares about modernisation and "electability"... his constituency agent, Jean Whittaker cares about principles and her community. Set away from the Westminster bubble in the party's traditional northern heartlands, this is a clash of philosophy, culture and class against the backdrop of the Labour Party over 25 years, as it moves from Kinnock through Blair into Corbyn... and beyond?

This razor-sharp political comedy from James Graham was produced by Michael Grandage Company and Headlong and received its world Premiere at the Noël Coward Theatre in September 2017.

Lally the Scut

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

The child's down a hole, the mother's up to high doh, the town's up in arms and humanity's down the drain.

Uproarious, occasionally macabre and always compelling, Lally the Scut draws a line in the mud for Northern Ireland.

Lally the Scut premiered at the MAC, Belfast, in a Tinderbox production in April 2015.

Lidless

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Lidless is a devastating play of extraordinary intelligence and finely balanced sensibility; it is at once topical and politically charged, and steeped in timeless questions of morality and guilt.

Fifteen years ago, Alice was an interrogator in Guantánamo Bay. The pills she took mean she can’t remember what she did there.

Fifteen years ago, Bashir was a prisoner, and now he pays her a visit. He is dying of a disease of the liver, an organ he believes is the home of the soul, and so he tracks down Alice in Texas and demands that she donate half her liver. This will be restitution for the damage wrought by her interrogations.

As Alice’s inquisitive daughter Rhiannon begins her own investigation into her mother’s past, and Bashir dredges up memories, Alice’s fragile drug-enabled peace of mind begins to falter. Electric and inexorable, Lidless marries the implacable logic of a Greek tragedy with an all-too-modern setting.

Lidless was Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s first play, and premiered in 2010 as part of the HighTide Festival, Halesworth, Suffolk.

Limehouse

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Steve Waters' play Limehouse is a dramatisation of the clandestine meeting of the so-called Gang of Four that in 1981 led to a breakaway from the UK Labour Party and ultimately the formation of the Social Democratic party. It was first performed at the Donmar Warehouse, London, on 8 March 2017 (previews from 2 March).

The play is set in Limehouse, London, in a house belonging to Labour MP David Owen and his wife Debbie, on Sunday 25 January 1981. Disillusioned with his party's leftwing bias, Owen has convened a meeting of supposedly like-minded figures: Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins. Torn between ancestral loyalty to Labour and dismay at what they see as its current zealotry, the four are desperate to find a political alternative. Should they split their party, divide their loyalties, and risk betraying everything they believe in? Would they be starting afresh, or destroying forever the tradition that nurtured them? As the day proceeds, the time for decisive action draws ever nearer.

The Donmar Warehouse production was directed by Polly Findlay and designed by Alex Eales. It was performed by Nathalie Armin as Debbie Owen, Tom Goodman-Hill as David Owen, Paul Chahidi as Bill Rodgers, Debra Gillett as Shirley Williams and Roger Allam as Roy Jenkins.

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).