In our final Q & A of 2018, Erin Cobby chats Brexit and the irony of shameless stereotypes with Jonny Woo as he brings his all-star cabaret to the majestic Coliseum in London.
Erin: What was the purpose of the cabaret?
Jonny: The cabaret was originally part of my Un-Royal Variety in 2016 and was a musical reaction to the immediate events at the time. It was supposed to be 1 song about what was going on and it turned into half an hour with 13 songs, co-written with Richard Thomas of Jerry Springer the Opera. We had such good material we decided to expand it to a full hour, which again was well received so we took it to Edinburgh. When you make a show, you don’t think, ‘what’s the purpose’. It’s not a bit of hardware that has a job. As an artist I create work as a reaction to either internal or external stimuli, which might be political, pop, irreverent or personal. What’s the purpose of cabaret? To entertain, to provoke, to challenge, untie or divide?
Why do you think Brexit has captured the imagination of so many theatre makers and how do you think the tone has changed 2 years after the referendum?
I actually don’t think it has captured the imagination of so many theatre makers. For such a divisive explosive topic we are not overrun with Brexit shows. In Edinburgh, we had a flurry, but most were in a stand-up format. There have been a couple of plays but I’m actually surprised there aren’t more. I haven’t seen any either. Because I’m writing this and didn’t want to either get influenced or think, I should be writing that.
The piece has been applauded for being open-ended, what do you think about the way ‘remainers’ and ‘leavers’ have been represented in theatre?
As I said previously I haven’t seen any. But I can only speak about my show. I use some broad brushstrokes and shamelessly use the original stereotypes. But it is with irony and to underline the point that we use these to back up our own objections. Brexiteers are misguided racist fools, or remainers are stuck up moralising middle class hipsters. The truth from my research is that there is a middle ground and people on both sides were very sure of their reasons, as they were unsure in equal measure. I hope that helps.
When a play focuses on current events how do you stop it becoming dated during a run?
You can’t and if that happens so be it. This show was always about the events of 2016 and I think it serves as a piece of theatrical documentation about our very recent shared history, of which we are all a part. I am trying to bring it up to date. This has now obviously made challenges. We have a song for Theresa May, which we’ll need to update. Boris has had some changes. I’m trying to write a ‘where are we now?’ song, but to keep it really contemporary when we are on the cusp of major political changes is tricky. The thing is, I’m like everyone else, I don’t have the answers, and I can only interpret and comment on what we are told.
Since writing the show, is there anything that has happened that you wish you could have included?
No, not really. As I said it was always about 2016 and those arguments haven’t really changed and until very recently nothing much happened, just a lot of to and fro-ing. The main thing is writing excellent songs and delivering a brilliant piece of theatre.
With Brexit potentially offering a restriction on the free exchange of ideas and talent, are you worried about how Brexit will affect the arts?
For me this is the biggest threat. I’m a sceptical remainer. I don’t believe we’ll have total economic collapse if we leave, hard or soft. But, I do think our culture is much richer for being part of Europe and I love having our friends from the continent here with us and I love the ability to work and share ideas in Europe. For me this is the deal breaker on the discussion over Brexit. Not just in the arts but across society, I have so many friends from the EU with whom I work and I see how much better off we are for them being here. I think the truth about our immigration policy is not being told and I think immigration can be managed without total withdrawal. blah blah blah. What irks me most about those who voted Brexit is the assertion that Europe’s influence on the UK is bad whilst they are happy to adopt the poisonous Americanisation of so much of our society which is far far more damaging…I’m not sure how I make that into a song!
Jonny Woo’s All Star Brexit Cabaret will be playing at the London Coliseum on December 17. For more information and tickets, follow the link.