Tag Archive | "politics"

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Feature: Sit up and listen – an overview of political theatre in 2013

Posted on 21 January 2014 by Matilda Reith

fiji land

This year, political theatre-goers were treated to high class drama up and down the country. Looking at topics including the Israel/Palestine conflict, homophobia, war crimes and sexism, 2013 saw major and minor theatre companies confront problems such as these head on. This brand of theatre offers society a service by providing accessible platforms, invitations to discuss and the opportunity for accidental discovery. For some, theatrical devices like dialogue, staging, music and movement have more impact than words on a page. Through research and devlopment, new stories are discovered and a company can bring a new angle to an issue. It is often the personal stories that are the most affecting right the way through, from actor to audience. But sometimes a show can pass for ‘political’ when it is as hard-hitting as a flannel, so here are some of 2013′s most memorable:

Set in 1920, These Shining Lives by Melanie Marnich bought the story of four female watch-dial painters, fatally poisoned by the radium with which they worked. Lyrical and moving, it bought a historical fight for women’s rights to London’s new Park Theatre. The revival of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride at Trafalgar Studios took a raw and pacy snapshot of prejudice towards homosexuality in 1958 and the present day. During the curtain call, the cast held ‘To Russia With Love’ placards, which amongst growing distress towards Russia’s anti-gay legislation, made The Pride exceptionally poignant. Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica opened at the Almeida Theatre in London, twinning the famed photo of solitary protest in Tiananmen Square with a spoonful of modern geopolitics. Praised for attempting and achieving a great feat in theatre, Kirkwood’s Chimerica has been listed as The Guardian‘s No. 2 in Best Theatre of 2013.

The National began the year with James Graham’s This House which was set in 1974 parliament, but perhaps had less bite than The Shed’s Protest Song, for example, which twinned London’s Occupy movement with homelessness in one monologue delivered by an intense Rhys Ifans. Love Your Soldiers, at the Crucible, gleaned 4 stars from The Guardian, marrying military realism with a twenty-first century love triangle. At the Young Vic, Joe Wright directed historical A Season in the Congo, telling of Congo’s liberation from Belgian rule. The Royal Court brought Polish playwright Anna Wakulik’s A Time to Reap to British audiences and high acclaim. A Time to Reap charts the journey of a woman against the backdrop of abortion and the Catholic Church in Poland, and was performed in Polish and English.

As usual, political theatre burst from every seam in Edinburgh. This year, at least 120 shows used ‘politics’ as a key word to describe themselves. The Fringe is the place to take angry, low-cost theatre that shouts a politically-minded message. Northern Stage at St Stephen’s housed Chris Thorpe’s There Has Possibly Been an Incident which was hauntingly stripped back. It took vague yet recognisable events (a country’s revolution, a public shooting, a plane crash) when you must choose between heroism and compromise from headlines into our hands. Ballad of the Burning Star was also highly praised; Theatre ad infinitum returned with an Israeli drag queen, proving that the oldest issues can still be approached from fresh. The Traverse marked its fiftieth birthday with a selection of international political shows; Quietly by Owen McCafferty took up Belfast bombings, and George Brant’s Grounded, which flagged up the psychological damage to drone controllers through the eyes of a pregnant pilot, was a must see of the festival. After the Fringe, Grounded transferred to London’s Gate Theatre for an extremely successful run.

It wasn’t just theatre that took up the political gauntlet. In dance, the return of Hofesh Shechter’s Political Mother was a sell out at Sadler’s Wells. A storming heart-attack of an evening with drums so loud you could hardly breath, it tackled terrorism and oppression. His new show Sun is a must-see for the 2014. Twitter went wild for spoken-word-artist Scroobius Pip’s Five Minutes which tackles domestic violence. Even Banksy’s Christmas card got in on the political action, depicting Mary and Joseph’s pilgrimage blocked by the 25ft high separation wall in Bethlehem.

This month, Nick Gill’s fiji land comes to the Southwark Playhouse. A darkly comic look at torture, the play is a surrealist reaction to the stories that emerged from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib in recent years. The fact that the problem is ongoing is a draw for director Alice Malin, but fiji land is mainly an exploration of the human capacity to hurt each other, and then justify it.

Theatre can be a wonderful mode through which to learn, feel connected and support a greater need. It is understandably daunting for a political newbie to go to a show dubbed ‘political’, but for anyone interested in affairs current and historical, it is a fantastic method of firing up anger, enthusiasm or surprise. In a year when we watched continuing revolution in the Middle East, marked the deaths of Margaret Thatcher, Lou Reed and Mandela, and watched North Korea unveil its ‘Barbie Army’, news stories have never been so varied, and our theatre reflected this. Perhaps 2014 is your year to get political?

Matilda Reith

Matilda Reith

Tilly is a first year English student at Sheffield University who is having an affair with the drama department. Between sleeps she likes to absorb and create as much theatre as possible but also spends a considerable amount of her time listening to jazz and drinking coffee.

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Review: The Duck House, Vaudeville Theatre

Posted on 14 December 2013 by Eleanor Turney

eventImage_160The Duck House can’t decide if it wants to be a satire, a farce, or both, and is consequently frustrating. Ben Miller is fun as Labour MP Robert Houston, who is planning to defect to the Tories just as the expenses scandal breaks. He and his wife, Felicity, sit quaffing champagne (keep the receipt) while their Russian housekeeper tidies around them, waiting for a call from Tory “pitbull” Sir Norman (Simon Shepherd), who will co-ordinate the announcement of his move.

The plot hinges on the fact that this move, and potential cabinet post, is contingent on his expenses claims being in order. Of course, Houston has claimed every which way, flipped his main residence and generally sponged off the tax payer at every opportunity. The humour comes from his increasingly farcical attempts to hide these claims from Sir Norman. Cue much running around, shouting, and hiding things in the broom cupboard.

There are some genuinely funny moments. The eponymous duck house is brought into the lounge, complete with resident duck. The physical comedy is amusing, too, although some gags are stretched too thin. The problem is that it’s all terribly heavy-handed. The characters are stereotypes, from the ambitious politician and his snobby wife, to their lazily revolutionary student son, and the old-school Tory with a secret penchant for being spanked with the Lisbon Treaty. Yes, there is a lot of running in and out of rooms, slamming doors and dropped trousers, but it all feels too predictable to be really funny.

We’re expected to find Houston and his ilk repellant, of course, but it feels rather smug. The giggles are too knowing, too cosy. Jokes about Andrew Mitchell (“mild-mannered chap, he rides a bike”) and Nick Clegg feel well-worn, and there’s little in the way of biting satire. The script, too, is often leaden: Houston confronts his son’s acupunturist fiancee with “Oh, where did you study that, the university of bollocks?”

Debbie Chazen, complete with comedy Russian accent, is amusing as the Houston’s cleaner, Ludmilla, providing much of the physical comedy. Nancy Carroll is enjoyable as Felicity Houston, and Ben Miller makes the most of his one-liners. It’s well-acted across the board, in fact, it’s just a shame that the script lacks real spark. Dan Patterson and Colin Swash, who between them have written for Mock The Week, Private Eye and Have I Got News For You, have great satirical credentials. Stretched to two hours, though, and the jokes wear thin.

The Duck House is currently playing at the Vaudeville Theatre. For more information and tickets visit the Vaudeville’s website.

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney is the Managing Editor of A Younger Theatre, as well as a freelance journalist, writer and editor. She has written for The Guardian, The Stage, The FT and Ideas Tap, and worked for the Poetry Society and the British Council.

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Feature: Kieran Hurley – “we are trying to push at the limits of what we can do in a theatre”

Posted on 08 October 2013 by Dan Hutton

320x320.fitandcropAbout halfway through our conversation, Kieran Hurley tells me a brilliant and quietly moving anecdote about The Bloody Great Border Ballad, a show which Northern Stages ran nightly at its Edinburgh home of St Stephens this year. Each night, the show began with two artists picked from a group of six (of which Hurley was one) performing their take on a ‘border ballad’ before handing over to an ‘epic ballad’. Here, a new artist would add one verse to a growing ballad each night to create a winding, complex story about a child born on the eve of Scottish independence. Before each show, Hurley tells me, the cast would get together to rehearse briefly in order to go over bits which needed clarifying. Then, he says, “we would get to the bit when the new balladeer would read their bit. And what I realised actually was that the rehearsals in themselves were like a céilidh [a gathering of people each presenting a party piece, or ‘turn’] … everyone had their bit that they did and we knew the bit that the community had brought to the table, and then we’d welcome in a new guest into the ‘living room’ where our céilidh was happening and everyone would hush and turn to the new guest because the new guest was going to do a ‘turn’.”

This observation is typical of the passion with which Hurley discusses ideas of community and mass gathering throughout the duration of our phone call. It’s a theme running throughout his work, often made up of “stories that describe, desire for and journey towards some kind of understanding of what solidarity might look like against the backdrop of a world that is increasingly individualistic”. His show, BEATS, for example, which is “a coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old boy” set against the backdrop of the Criminal Justice Act of 1994 outlawing music with “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”, considers how an ostensibly hedonistic and non-political rave culture made “someone in power [feel] threatened enough to legislate against it” due to its “dangerous political potential”. As the possibilities of protest and dissent are threatening to become fruitless and stifled against the backdrop of neoliberalism, Hurley’s work is increasingly interested in exploring ideas of “people – and particularly young people – claiming and taking ownership of space collectively and temporarily.” Following a representation of an anti-capitalist demonstration in Hitch and preceding the riot in Chalk Farm, BEATS (which premiered last year) asks questions about “a hedonistic sub-culture that then becomes politicised because the way of life was being legislated against, becoming politically radical in some way.”

Like many people dissatisfied with and angry about the increased focus on the individual in the years since Thatcher and Reagan, Hurley believes that “getting together as a polity, being together as a group of people, is always in itself a really important political response to the way the world is.” And though this is said as a response to a question from me about the communal aspects of rave culture and its connection to mass protest, Hurley points out that theatre performs a similar function: “Theatre is a place which – when we get it right – provides an ideal context for a discussion around some of those things by virtue of kind of being it.”

This is why BEATS is an event which happens within a theatre. Though it is “smokey” and “ravey” and contains “gestures towards a particular type of aesthetic, the whole thing would fall on its feet if you did it in a tent in a field because people would want something different from that event and would engage with that event with a different type of focus. If you want that type of collective attention, go to a rave.” Here again, we come back to ideas of space and ownership, because what the aesthetic of BEATS does, complete with disc- and video-jockeys, is to create “a space for the story to live in”. Like the inhabitants of the world evoked by Hurley’s text, the text itself takes ownership of the space in which it lives in order to “gesture towards and illustrate [rave conditions] and help scribe a particular type of energy and a particular type of context in a way that’s really theatrical. So it’s not like we’re trying to make you feel like you’re in a rave, but we are trying to push at the limits of what we can do in a theatre to help you imagine that particular context.”

This idea of contexts is one we keep returning to. Sometimes, for example, “being at a rave can be an important political or politicising experience in terms of how you relate to people in that space and what that space might then mean”. Elsewhere, however, “being at a rave can also be a horrible, stinking mess, and shit things can happen (I’m not romantically suggesting that if people just go out and take some MDMA then we’ll overthrow the Tories and there will forever be some kind of global utopia – that’s so much not what’s going on in the show)”. Similarly, Legally Blonde: The Musical has “a huge amount of politics going on in the relationship between the audience and the work… along economic lines, along the product that you’re buying, along personal lines or representation lines or gender lines. And those political relationships along all those lines don’t just disappear in different contexts, they’re not just there when people say ‘This is political theatre’, and they don’t go away when people stop calling it that. They’re there. They’re just there, all the time.” Even The Bloody Great Border Ballad, which saw Hurley articulating his belief that “an independent Scotland doesn’t necessarily need to mean a dis-United Kingdom in any negative sense” to a predominantly English audience in a Scottish venue, was full of contextual complexity.

Following the tour of BEATS, Hurley returns to Scotland to continue work on Rantin, a piece made with another theatre practitioner and two musicians which is “about trying to create a botched, incomplete, fragmented patchwork of a nation and the impossibility of there being a single idea of what nationhood is” before collaborating with Cora Bissett (another Border Ballad contributor) on a show about the late musician Martyn Bennett, who created “amazing electronic compositions that drew on samples from the folk tradition”. Interestingly, though, a lot of Hurley’s work to date has been described variously as “charming”, “hopeful” and “enjoyable”, but he suggests he’s “beginning to feel like that’s not wholly an adequate response to the way the world is. So my response to the question ‘Do I have to feel like it’s enjoyable for an audience?’ is increasingly ‘No’. It might be that something being valuable might be different from that, really, which whilst still being utterly respectful of the audience might also feel at times quite difficult. And so I guess I have some increasingly angry work to come out of me over the next few years, work the critics will not like. Work that will be hard work. But that’s not a promise or anything.”

BEATS by Kieran Hurley is at Soho Theatre, London from 14-26 October (under 26s and concessions tickets £12.50) and then touring from 16 November onwards. See the BEATS website for details.

Dan Hutton

Dan Hutton

Dan recently graduated with a degree in English and Theatre Studies from the University of Warwick. He is a theatre-maker, freelance theatre critic and a company director of Barrel Organ Theatre.

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Review: Tory Boyz

Posted on 04 October 2013 by Amina Bhuiyan

Tory Boyz

James Graham’s Tory Boyz is a fly-on-the-wall peek at what happens behind closed doors in the House of Commons. It is a wholly fantastic 90 minute play with some great young actors. Rewritten from its original 2008 setting to today’s previously unthinkable political landscape of the coalition of the Lib Dems and Tories, the relevance of this play is obvious.

The story follows young gay researcher Sam in his discovery of the stickier end of politics. Uncovering and investigating long-buried rumours about former party members makes for a wonderfully written play, surely sealing Graham’s future as a brilliant writer. It is unsurprising that his latest play, This House, is currently a sell-out smash hit.

Simon Lennon, as the lead character, Sam, struggles with his own identity alongside those of the party to whom he chose to pledge his allegiance. This, married with the juxtaposition of Sam’s background against his aspirations, in a touching and sensitive performance, convinces me that his is certainly a face we will be seeing again. Sope Dirisu’s languidly arrogant portrayal of Nicholas, Sam’s boss, is equally compelling, though in a completely different manner. Dirisu’s charisma lit up the Ambassadors Theatre and was an absolute delight. Despite playing the character whose lines ensured he earned the most laughs from the audience, infallible timing and punchy delivery of his quips ensured he was not predictable and as a result my attention did not falter.

I’m convinced these young people on stage for this production will go on to have extremely successful careers in an industry widely infamous for being harsh and competitive. Tory Boyz stars the next generation of phenomenal talent sourced by the ever reliable National Youth Theatre.

We must remember that this production was performed by a young cast, and we therefore can’t expect it to be a perfect West End show. Some of the scenes seemed a little haphazard, especially the parts set in the school, where Sam thoughtfully asks school children what they think should become of matters concerning education. I’m also not convinced it was necessary to link present day goings on to long dead former members of the party who ruled those same offices. Despite this, I don’t believe it was too far off overall.

With so many breathlessly poignant observations delivered in witty little sound bites, it’s easy to see why Tory Boyz sold out in its original form in Soho 2008. I did not see the production the first time round but this version makes me wish I had, especially if the cast were as stellar.

Tory Boyz is at the Ambassadors Theatre on 8, 9, 22 and 29 October. For more information and tickets visit the National Theatre’s website.


Amina Bhuiyan

Amina Bhuiyan

By day Amina works for an accountancy firm in the city. By night she writes about theatre. She has worked with numerous organisations including RADA, The National Youth Theatre and Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She has also studied Drama & Theatre studies and English Language & Literature. Aside from theatre, she also likes a number of things - including but not limited to - food. And then writing about that as well.

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