Theatre in Wales

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Democratising Space, Public Funding, Verbatim Theatre, Political Theatre & the Writer’s Role

Theatre: the Talk in England

Comment on Theatre , Wales and England , January-08-15
Theatre: the Talk in England by Comment on Theatre A conference “No Boundaries” took place 25th-26th February 2014 in York and Bristol with two hundred and seventy delegates. The conference (www.nb2014.org) included discussion on the democratisation of performance space. Kully Thiarai is Chief Executive of Cast, Doncaster’s venue that opened in September 2013 in the face of sizeable local hostility. She reported that forty thousand visited the theatre in its first season.

A collaborative team of authors who call themselves three Johns and Shelagh published a document “Towards Plan B A Different Approach to Public Funding of the Arts” (www.john3shelagh.com/ towards-plan-b.html). Deliberately provocative it had its areas of vagueness like “Create relationships rather than transactions with the communities they serve.” But it had punch too. On boards “Make their governance reflect their community”. As an antidote for mission creep “Be clear about their artistic and civic purposes and shout about them in plain and simple ways”. On audience ambitions “Not treat public funding as a proxy for public engagement” and lastly “Use language that everybody understands instead of advocacy-speak.”

Verbatim theatre is important. Richard Norton-Taylor and the Tricycle have been a crucial part of theatre’s make-up in the last era. Lyn Gardner tackled theatre’s retreat from story. (Guardian 26 May 2014): “One of the errors that verbatim theatre often makes is to conclude that because something is true, it is more interesting. Or rather, more interesting than something that has been made up. It's like those Hollywood movie openings that tell you the film you are about to see is "based on a true story". Why should that give it any more currency than a story that has been entirely made up and yet feels as if it's real – or more real than real? After all, imagination is the currency of all writers and theatre-makers.”

The problem with documentary is that it rarely chimes with dramatic form. The film industry has its brutal approach. If the subjects are dead and can’t sue its scriptwriters take their mega-bucks and lie.

A blogger (Angelinabca Guardian 7 November) hit political theatre head-on. Its makers, she declared, have “little or no connection to any kind of genuine raw data. What tends to happen is a form of confirmation bias, where the writer listens to media reports about things and hears his circles opinions on them, goes and has a think, starts writing…I have yet to see a political play that genuinely analyses actual data properly, without falling into caricature or overt political bias.”

Her critique was one of theatre’s biggest hits of 2014. “King Charles 3rd” is a really good play, but as a case in point, doesn't actually give us any real understanding of our constitution apart from the very well known fact that it is unwritten and that the Monarch could refuse to sign legislation if they so choose. Both of these things are incredibly basic facts, but they are treated like extraordinary revelations in the play at which point there is no further examination of any genuine potential constitutional melt-downs whilst we get treated to a family soap-opera; a less convincing version of Downton Abbey.”

“This is not seriously considered revolutionary or even informative is it? It's well crafted, well directed, staged and acted and raises an interesting political point which is the abuse of power by politicians when they seek to curb the media and this should have been the point of the piece, reflected through the Monarch's point of view. What it is not is an examination of the monarchy and our constitution, but that's what everyone thinks it is, including the writer.”

It is unimaginable that Messrs Goold and Bartlett could make anything together that was not memorable. It is great theatre but Angelinabca is also dead right.

The career of a playwright must be among the most unpredictable ventures ever. No-one would have forecast that the once author of “the Education of Skinny Spew” would become the sympathetic chronicler of Harold McMillan or the quitting of India. James Graham may or may not achieve Howard Brenton’s longevity but he understands writing.

In interview in the Telegraph “As a writer, I’ve never been too comfortable to projecting my own politics aggressively onto an audience. I write not to promote myself. I write to hide.” Graham is not so far from Tim Price and his “I am the vehicle for story, not the other way round.” By contrast the aspiring writer for theatre who makes a public declaration that a Middle East country is “no better than the nazis” reveals nothing beyond contempt for history, language and the public role of the writer.

Complexity is essential. Paul Taylor in “The Independent 2nd September 2014 mounted a strong defence of “Dogfight”. Seeing analogies with charges against T S Eliot and Bob Dylan he paraphrased Christopher Ricks and concluded that “great art refuses to play safe and derives its power, in part, by always running the risk of being misinterpreted.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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