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?