Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Dramatist Takes to the Stage to Tackle the Referendum

David Edgar

Trying It On- China Plate & Warwick Arts Centre , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , October 4, 2019
David Edgar by Trying It On- China Plate & Warwick Arts Centre Aberystwyth has always, over the years, had a knack for attracting spicy theatre for a one-venue-in-Wales-only performance. So too with David Edgar who follows a path trod by the likes of Akram Khan, Vanishing Point, Cirkus Inferno, the Globe, Northern Broadsides and so many others of the first league. His appearance is all the more welcome in a season of dense rain, the rail route to the west- always fragile- submerged in flooding.

He is also welcome for another reason. After the performance a Q&A takes place at which another David takes the Chair. Wales has one scholar of note of modern drama. David Ian Rabey is known for studies of Barker and Butterworth, McDowell and Rudkin. But all professors were once PhD students and Rabey recalls he was once a twenty-two year old and his companion this Saturday in the Aberystwyth studio was once a source of kind help to a young scholar.

David Edgar has form in Aberystwyth, speaking some years back at the Drwm in the National Library. His address was then something of a tour de force, covering forty years of international affairs and political thought. The two big Davids of the stage for the last 50 years are commonly grouped together. Hare does institutions while Edgar's focus is on ideas. I have always judged Edgar the stronger playwright, not least because it is Idea that animates institutions- I never found dialectical materialism convincing. Edgar had from early days the craft to get on stage large, sweeping dramas that caught the thrill of ideologies in collision.

“Pentecost”, back in 2006, prefigured a Mediterranean peopled with women and men in flight. “That Summer” gave a tenderness of humanity to the Miners Strike. “The Shape of the Table” was the best theatrical response to the implosion of the Warsaw Pact. The plays are holding up, that last title and the great “Maydays” both being praised on revivals in recent years.

“Trying It On” does not have the sweep of a large cast but Frankie Bradshaw's design fills the ample space of Aberystwyth's main stage. Edgar is the writer as craftsman; the last thing theatre is about is talk. Good writers use things, props, to make action. This dramatist-performer has photographs and film at his disposal, even balloons to pop.

Edgar and his stage manager Danielle Phillips were in Oxford a few days previously. An astute audience member there reported that the density of the material slightly overwhelmed. That is no bad thing- what passes for “political theatre” is commonly thin gruel. But there is a lot in this script.

The first years out of the family home are the ones that make the impact. Edgar was aged twenty in Manchester in the year of cataclysm that was 1968. The bombing in Cambodia may have been secret but Paris was the site of violent urban battle. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were gunned down. In England a generation of lifelong activists was finding its first voice. The faces of Anna Coote, Hilary Wainwright, Paul Mason, Tariq Ali, Martin Jacques, David Aaronovitch and others appear on screen in testimony. The names that follow range wide. From here Alfred Sherman, from across the Atlantic Kristol and Podhoretz. In his combative intellectual battles Gore Vidal had the habit of referring to him as “Poddy.”

But seriousness does not entail earnestness. An early line confesses “this production contains a catastrophic piece of miscasting.” Edgar enters into an exchange with a clunky-keyed cassette recorder of the period. He writes a piece of theatre cleverness- no spoiler- that animates what is happening on stage, deepens it, and makes the speaking figure more human.

“Trying It On” is prompted by a question. Theatre went on to form Gay Sweatshop in London and General Will in Bradford. “The stuff of politics expanded outward to the planet and inward to the person.” The accomplishments of the '68 Generation have been profound, realised not just in legislation but in attitudinal shift. Cultural change is slow but, when occurred, irreversible. The ambit of tolerance widened while paradoxically the territory of the Commons inexorably shrunk. And yet to be of that generation on June 23rd meant, according to the statistical mean, a likelihood to cast a vote in a particular way. It is the nature of artists to face truth and Edgar does it. Populism prevails over social democracy, because it uses the economic language of social democracy. Authority will dispense welfare largesse for the collective, while insisting that the collective has no truck with identity issues.

Art is not a lecture; when it wants to be, it dies. It is raising the questions that matter. The autopsies of the last three years, all those millions of words, are unsatisfactory. The root in ecology is unmentioned. Simplicity displaces complexity; that is how it is. Representative democracy exists to grapple with complexity.

As for the muddle over geography Danny Dorling, an urban geographer whose currency is fact, was at the Hay Festival this spring. It was the south that swung it because more people live in the south. It is just arithmetic. The shires of Old England, their poles proudly flying their St George's Cross flags, are a solid bloc between London, Bristol, Cambridge, Manchester. To declaim it to be the solid cry of the left-behinds is just one more blurt of a culture that does not want to know itself.

“Trying It On” is the opposite, culture doing what it is supposed to do, holding the mirror up. Theatre is the art that delineates the tension of fissure. The last three years should by rights have been ripe for a response in theatre, but we have not got there yet. The discussion after the performance ponders the omission. Certainly Carol Ann Duffy and Rufus Norris intended well but missed the mark. Edgar points to Mike Bartlett's “Albion.” As for Wales a voice from the front row says “The theatre of Wales will never do a Brexit play.” That was my voice in a public forum. An audience in Aberystwyth is dependent on a visitor from England for theatre on the issue that is the galvanising unsolvable marker of our communal societal life.

Other credits for “Trying It On”: director- Christopher Haydon, Lighting & Video Designer William Reynolds, Sound Designer Ella Wahlström, production Manager Katy Monroe Farlie, deputy production manager Mark Hannant

Links below- 2018 book “How Plays Work”, 2008 Out of Joint “Testing the Echo”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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