With the 2015 General Election looming, the barrage of campaign coverage has done little to inspire young people, often reinforcing a view of politicians as uninterested in their concerns. According to the founders of vote-matching site Tickbox, most younger Brits aren’t planning on voting, though many are passionate about political issues. How, then, can we show Britain’s youth what is really at stake on 7 May? Brave Badger’s Mark Knightley hopes a more creative approach might hold the key.
Knightley’s new play, The Heart of Adrian Lovett, will run at Theatre Delicatessen in the final days before the election. Tackling the NHS privatisation scandal, it’s an immersive production set in a not-too-distant future, where much of the NHS has been sold off. Its title character is a fading TV personality whose drug addiction leads to a heart attack. Now Lovett needs a transplant, and in a desperate bid to boost his flagging career, he forks out for a “top tier” operation to be broadcast live on national television.
“It’s about greed and what would happen if the NHS as we know it was gone,” Knightley explained. “Increasingly, ‘NHS’ is becoming a label beneath which there’s actually a lot of selling off and eroding of the service’s founding principles.”
The play casts viewers in the role of Adrian’s fans, flocking to the hospital to watch the operation.
“The viewing room is carpeted and full of NHS paraphernalia with pan pipe music playing. There’s a real disconnect between that over-comfortable environment and the operating theatre, which has all this strange, ostentatious stuff he’s paid for, like a chandelier instead of an operating lamp.”
In the first half, doctors move between the rooms to address viewers during the operation. Later, the show becomes a kind of forum, inviting audience members to share their thoughts. In demanding a direct response from viewers, Knightley hopes the play will help politicise them, demonstrating the real impact of policies on people’s lives.
“Over half of 18 to 24-year-olds don’t vote because they’ve been totally disenfranchised. Not only are they faced with rising tuition fees and few job opportunities, but politicians never talk to them, so what we’ve ended up with is figures like Russell Brand encouraging them into apathy towards the system. I think it’s much better to show how politics is relevant to them. We want to encourage people not just to use their votes but also to talk to their friends about it.”
To target young audiences, the company has approached youth groups in Farringdon, and is offering two-for-one tickets to 18 to 21-year-olds during the show’s first week. It’s not only young people that Knightley is keen to provide a platform for, however. Doctors, he feels, have been notably excluded from NHS-related policy-making, particularly from the passing of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act. While writing the script, Knightley spoke to several medical professionals.
“I had a series of meetings with Allyson Pollock [Professor of Public Health Research and Policy at Queen Mary], during which I played the part of a doctor arguing for privatisation and she shot me down. Her points were so clear and concise that I included lots of what she said almost verbatim.”
Meanwhile, finding people in the pro-privatisation camp proved more difficult, and not only among doctors. Describing privatisation as “a narrative that none of the main parties wants to discuss”, Knightley mentioned a debate he attended where party representatives consistently avoided the issue, even when asked about it.
“If no one is prepared to say that privatisation is a good thing, then why is it happening? It’s so frustrating because it’s all ideology-driven. We had a system that worked; things don’t even need to be failing to be sold off.”
Despite the apparent lack of support for privatisation, Knightley was determined to present a balanced debate. Eventually, he turned to an economist, who argued that privatisation was a misleading term, but “outsourcing” is beneficial in moderation.
“It’s really important not to be didactic: you have to just present viewers with the problem and hope they go away with the right answers.”
For all the play’s bleakness, this hope is the driving force behind it, demonstrating what can be achieved when people work together for change.
“The little dog shot in the trailer was inspired by 101 Dalmatians: Cruella DeVille is rich, powerful and influential, and individually the dogs are vulnerable, but when they all come together using the Twilight Bark, they’re able to rescue the puppies.”
If the metaphor sounds a little daft, it’s probably intentional: Knightley emphasised that theatre’s “first job is to entertain”, with humour playing a crucial role in making politics palatable.
“I’ve just come out of a rehearsal with people dancing to “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, so there’s a lot of silliness behind the sincerity.”
The Heart of Adrian Lovett is showing at Theatre Delicatessen from 20 April until 9 May.