Can we watch and create theatre without any political intention? Is apoliticism an insidious tool? After watching two very different shows, Aidan Bracebridge is left wondering.
A few months back, I reviewed a new play by Katherine Thomas called Never Trust a Man Bun, which took my breath away for all the wrong reasons. With its awkward double-date, its will-they-won’t-they flat-mate romance and a healthy portion of dramatic irony to go with its crisp and pretzel sandwich centrepiece, the play was clearly aligning itself in the rom-com tradition. Equally prominent, however, were the casually sexist, homophobic and ableist stereotypes, on which both the comedy and the plot depended, cunningly concealed behind such phrases as “That was retarded of me” and “You’re being a bitch”. To say I was a little bit shocked to see this on display in a London theatre in 2019 would be a bit of an understatement. I submitted my review, tried to forget about it and went back to my place on the observation deck of society to enjoy our latest collective attempts to avoid the looming iceberg of climate change by melting it.
But then I read an interview Thomas did with Miro magazine, and couldn’t stop thinking about some of the quotes. They suggested “there isn’t a political message to [her] play” and that such theatre has come under threat by the greater emphasis on political engagement in theatre in recent years. Clearly our difference of perspective on the appropriateness of performing Never Trust a Man Bun isn’t just to do with our political beliefs but our belief in the political. To me, politics is about how people choose to live their lives, how we relate to each other, how we think about each other. It’s about all the interactions, from friendly chats in the local to hardnosed international negotiations, that shape our experience of the world. Since even Samuel Beckett would struggle to write a play that says nothing at all about these connections (or possibly lack thereof), I find it difficult to imagine how any theatre could be apolitical.
Evidently, there are plenty of people who don’t see it this way and indeed feel that politics often represent an intrusion into what Thomas calls an “uncomplicated and elegant art”. The problem with this view is that it sees drama that conforms to established assumptions as “artistic” and drama that does not as “political”. This means that portraying theatre as apolitical art disguises the political norms that underpin – and are reinforced by – each production (consciously or otherwise). Moreover, this perspective undermines any challenge to those norms by rendering them political and therefore irrelevant to a production’s artistic concerns.
This point is made very eloquently by another recent production, And The Rest of Me Floats – a sensitive exploration of seven queer people’s experiences in a world that is oppressively hetero- and cis-normative. In a number of striking scenes, these individuals are caught in a crossfire of intrusive and offensive questions about their gender identities, delivered from a grid of microphones that enclose the stage. This perfectly demonstrates how the homophobic assumptions – seen merely as passive, apolitical banter by the all-straight characters in Never Trust a Man Bun – become an active assault on those marked out as different by society.
One of these barbed questions in And The Rest of Me Floats – “Do you need to make it so political?” – is particularly revealing in its suggestion not only that queer identities are seen as political, whilst heteronormative expression is not, but also that this very politicisation excludes them from any drama that is not itself overtly and actively political. So framing a play as apolitical is doubly oppressive. Firstly, it legitimises the normative assumptions underpinning the drama. And secondly, by labelling the opinions of those who do not conform to these assumptions as “political” it excludes all dissenting voices from any theatre that is perceived as purely artistic.
This is where my real problem with Never Trust a Man Bun arises. I don’t believe that Thomas had any intention of reinforcing the harmful stereotypes on display. But separating theatre from politics has allowed the political assumptions which underpin the play to go unquestioned. This makes apoliticism a particularly insidious tool for maintaining an established political order as it deflects criticism back onto the criticiser rather than engaging with it. And in doing so, it enables people who do not necessarily endorse those politics to reproduce them.
Theatre doesn’t have to be about climate change, Brexit or even dubious trade deals involving large quantities of covfefe to be political. All politics really is, is our point of view, which manifests itself in everything we do: in the clothes that we wear, the places we choose to spend our time and the people we spend it with.
One of theatre’s most enduring, not to mention important, appeals is its ability to let us put ourselves in other people’s shoes and experience their perspectives. “I often feel very watched”, says Emily Joh Miller towards the end of And The Rest of Me Floats, “but right now I feel really seen”. We don’t go to the theatre just to watch the characters on stage but to see their stories take shape, to feel the world as they feel it. For theatre-makers, then, to be aware of the politics of their drama, especially when these are disguised behind a smokescreen of apoliticism, shouldn’t be such a large thing to ask. After all it’s the same thing that they ask of us: to step out of ourselves, just for a moment, and see the world the way that others do.