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Behind the Scenes: Arts in Parliament

Posted on 16 July 2012 by Sarah Williams

It’s not often you get invited to watch a play in Westminster Hall at the Houses of Parliament. In fact, as far as records show, Wednesday evening’s performance of Re-write, written by 17-year-old Tosin Omosebi, was the first ever instance of a play being staged in the 900-year-old space. The play had been crowned the winner of the National Theatre’s annual playwriting competition for 15-19-year-olds, New Views, but the unprecedented performance in Westminster Hall arose from the theatre’s involvement in another special cultural celebration: this year’s Arts in Parliament programme. Launched in January with a performance from renowned South Asian dance group, Akademi, the festival (which continues until September) offers a variety of visual art, crafts, poetry, storytelling and performance.

Frank Doran MP, Chair of the House of Commons Works of Art Committee and Member of the all-party Arts in Parliament Advisory Group, explains how the programme was parliament’s individual contribution to the wider Cultural Olympiad (the festival of culture which began in 2008 as part of the build-up to London’s 2012 Olympics. “By inviting a variety of groups and individuals in the arts to contribute to Arts in Parliament, we wanted to make a statement about the arts; a statement of support for the arts”, says Doran.

As well as championing culture, the programme also aims to increase the accessibility and reach of Westminster. “From our point of view, we wanted to make parliament more accessible,” Doran explains. “Parliament is often seen as ‘dry’ but it is in fact a place of huge excitement. It is the hub of our democracy. We are breaking new ground, inviting the public to see Parliament in a different light.”

In particular, the organisers hope to attract, engage and involve young people in the festival’s programme. This includes Youth Music Voices, a choir of 16-21-year-olds who will sing in Parliament later in July, as well as performances from somewhereto_, a nationwide initiative to help match young people with “the physical and digital space” needed “to do the things they love within sport, culture and the arts”. In August, young performers involved in the project will perform in spaces in Westminster Hall and Portcullis House. Through such a focus on youth, Doran explains, parliament hopes to counter the trend of apathy amongst “young people who are less and less interested in Parliament and politics”. This endeavour is matched in broader efforts within parliament to engage young people, with a large-scale educational programme catering for schools visits in Westminster as well as outreach officers travelling to schools.

For New Views winner Tosin Omosebi, seeing her play performed in such an unprecedented fashion was almost beyond words: “It’s amazing. I can’t describe it – it’s such a huge thing.” Before her involvement in the programme this year, the young writer’s view of Parliament had been rather different: “It seemed like a separate world – nothing to do with me. So it’s great to be included.” Entering the playwriting competition, students undertook an online writing course provided by playwright Jemma Kennedy, as they worked towards submitting a 30-minute play. Judges included the National’s Nicholas Hytner (Artistic Director) and Sebastian Born (Associate Literary Director), as well as poet Inua Ellams and student panellist Bridget Minamore, a previous participant in New Views. Of one hundred and seventy-five submissions, eleven writers were chosen by the National’s judging panel to have their plays performed by professional actors in July at the National Theatre. Omosebi learned that she had been shortlisted for the winning play just after coming out of her English Literature exam. “I’m glad I wasn’t told before the exam!” she laughs. Omosebi and other participants received mentoring from Kennedy as they redrafted their scripts, before the winning play was announced – with the added distinction of having a performance in Parliament.

Omosebi’s play, which invites debate in exploring the complex social and psychological themes behind the criminal mind, in many ways epitomises the festival’s aim of engaging young people with the political issues dealt with every day in Parliament. Kingsley and Tommy are two patients in a secure psychiatric hospital, who have been convicted for murder. Their doctor, known only as Dr #476A, has a method of treatment almost as curious as his name, that of “re-writing” his characters’ lives in the hope of moulding their futures for the better.  In fact it was subjects covered in Omosebi’s AS-level philosophy classes at Greenford High School in Middlesex that inspired her thoughts behind the play: “Are people born to be evil? Can you change, or is that just how you are?”

I ask the writer what her own view is: “I think it’s unlikely that they can. You are who you are. But the play leaves it really open.” Handling a dark subject with sharp, engaging humour, sensitively painted characters and a playful theatricality, Re-write certainly provided rich food for thought, justifying its occupation of such a venue.

As we gathered in front of the temporary stage erected in the hall – the mixed audience including its fair share of Parliamentarians – there was a tangible sense that something a little out of the ordinary was about to happen. With an introduction by John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons, and Baroness D’Souza, Lord Speaker, Re-write claimed its place in the canon of significant events taking place in the historic building. “It is the first play performed in Westminster Hall”, Bercow announced, “but I’m sure you will agree that it won’t be the last.”

“It is certainly a symbolic move,” Doran tells me. “We are testing the waters. Westminster Hall is used for lobbying, for visiting statesmen and women. At the Jubilee, the Queen spoke from the hall. Aung San Suu Kyi and Barack Obama have spoken there. The Queen Mother was laid in state in Westminster Hall and visited by thousands of people. There is a long history in Westminster Hall.” In addition, the Hall is the entrance through which members of the general public visiting parliament are welcomed. Every year 1.2 million visitors pass through the doors at Cromwell Green, undergoing  rigorous airport-style security checks before emerging into the vast, consequential space.

Since June, visitors passing through have also been able to look at another vibrant part of the festival on display there: Hands Around the World, created by The Creative Peace Mural Society, is a selection of textile murals created on an international scale to capture local culture. Eleven tapestries were created in community projects around the world and exhibited all together for the first time as part of the Arts in Parliament programme.

Funded principally by the Arts Council, the festival offers free tickets in advance for the public. Unsurprisingly, the number and frequency of visits accommodated is limited by security issues as well as by the need for the building to continue as a functioning parliament (while we watch the play, regular visitors and politicians are quietly shepherded around us). However some exhibitions can be enjoyed from street level, such as the ceramic flower garden on Cromwell Green by artist Paul Cummins. The hundreds of hand-crafted rose and tulip blooms are purportedly designed to represent “love, friendship, hope, unity, faith and trust; values that have strong resonance with Parliament and democracy.” Peeking up at those looking down into the garden from outside, the floral installations hint at further excitement and creativity within Parliament.

Arts in Parliament runs until September 2012. For tickets and more information on all events, visit www.parliament.uk/artsiparliament.

To take part in next year’s New Views competition please visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/newviews.

Image credit: Simon Annand

Sarah Williams

Sarah Williams

Sarah has an MA in theatre from RADA and King's College London and has written for publications including A Younger Theatre and The Guardian.

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