Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Theatre Isn't Television

Deborah Orr on Alexander Zeldin & Katherine Soper

Deborah Orr, a good columnist, landed on two new works in theatre and blended them with the play “Boy” by Leo Butler from last year into an opinion piece on January 17th called “Why can't TV tap into these plays for today's marginalised?” It is fascinating, as much as for what is in it as is not.

The plays themselves; the adjective chosen for “Wish List” by Katherine Soper is “devastating”. The playwright takes the lid off the reality of our effortless click 'n' shop. Her protagonist is a young woman with a zero-hours packing job. The work is piece-rate, the expected output algorithmically driven. She has responsibility for her brother with OCD and despite the resultant agoraphobia and sociophobia has been declared fit for work.

“Love” is written and directed by Alexander Zeldin. Its single setting, in five scenes with no interval, is a hostel ostensibly for emergency accommodation. The law sets a limit to the length of time of a stay but it is a law not adhered to. A couple, she thirty-three weeks pregnant, are in one room with school-age son and daughter. The institutional common space is shared with a bald overweight fifty year old and his incontinent mother, a separated mother from Sudan and a man with a limp from Syria.

“Love” has a fidelity to truth- I have seen it, but not “Wish List”. In Deborah Orr's words, quite rightly, “It has no truck with sentimental ideas of the Blitz Spirit, with comrades in adversity helping each other out. The residents are all mistrustful of each other, resentful of the idea that the chronic needs of one might trump the chronic needs of another in the quest to bag that elusive council house. They are pitched against each other in a wretched competition, clinging to the purity of their helplessness. Both plays explore competition among the marginalised as a force that further alienates people from each other. Any sense of community, of shared adversity, is fleeting and hard won, a luxury that is a threat to individual survival and not, therefore, to be indulged for long."

As it is not strictly a theatre review the article misses out on what makes “Love” succeed. It is action in physical space before participants, us, the audience, who cannot freeze-frame, fast-forward or skip channels. It has an inexorable wearying rhythm that is mirror to the tedium of lives pushed out to the edge. It is unlike “I, Daniel Blake” where the encounters with the state, and its representatives, are part of the action. Nothing takes us away from the focus of the hostel. Telephone calls are made and messages left. A peremptory call to a DWP interview means the forgoing of a hospital appointment. In its place are small actions. A son washes his mother's hair in real time. The detail is in the use of the communal washing-up liquid. She later is unable to get to the lavatory. Faeces drop to the floor. It is actual in front of our eyes. Small actions have big meanings. A boy wants to take a sparse meal with hood up. A parent lowers it, he flicks it back. "Love" is tough to watch, demanding and purged of sentimentality.

The article laments that “Love” will only be seen by a small audience. But it can only be seen by an audience within a shared space. The crux of the article, however, extends to television. The thesis is “The BBC now survives, politically, by carefully avoiding too much in the way of public service.” This is grotesque. The public broadcaster cannot move without process and adherence to public duty; viewer-decimating coverage of religion for a start. The criticism was lacerating last Spring on the interpretation of the obligation to balance.

One element of the politics of June 23rd last year was nostalgia for a better time. Thus too this article. “I remember Play for Today.” Writer and commentators released a stream of memories. It was touching in going back decades. Mike Leigh, Alan Bleasdale, Dennis Potter, Jack Rosenthal, Alan Clarke, Jim Allen, Andres Dunbar, “the Spongers”, “Spend,Spend,Spend”, “Edna the Inebriate Woman”, “the Firm” (Oldman, not Cruise), the names and titles rolled and rolled. “The Boys from the Blackstuff” was lauded again and again.

An occasional voice spoke of a time of three channels against three hundred. Public sector broadcasting is now a small fish among great whites. Its three billion revenue is based on a vulnerable revenue model. “But I do wish television would find the confidence and boldness truly to reflect Britain back at itself once more.” was the view but drama costs a fortune and the commissioners need to pick winners that sell.

As an interesting note the article opens with a touch of acid “the metropolitan elite is at last receiving regular tuition in austerity, at the theatre.” “Elite” must be the most abused word of the moment. The elite are Sandhurst, Eton and all the rest and they occupy Cabinet and Boardrooms. The most privileged sector of Britain drove isolationism. They are not at the National Theatre. The plays get an thumbs-up on another count. “Often the plays make their way to the capital from other urban centres.” Alexander Zeldin is an associate director at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and it plays there next week. "Wish List” is a Bruntwood prize-winner that beat nineteen hundred other scripts. Leo Butler is from Sheffield. That adds a degree of virtue.

“Liberal” too has undergone a metamorphosis. It is a political philosophy of lineage and honour. It may be thrown around now as a sneer but its philosophical grandeur remains. “ And it’s weird beyond expression, surely, that one of the contemporary privileges of the liberal elite is the ability to sit in comfortable theatres in London, bearing witness to the misery of the dispossessed.” This is peculiar and ignorant. It is peculiar in that presumably theatre should not go to the edge, Alexander Zeldin should not be commissioned, the Bruntwood Prize not be given to a playwright who leaves her sitting-room. The ignorance in that art has a heritage here. Dickens had celebrity status, “Les Miserables” was the best-selling novel of its century.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
22 January 2017


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