Theatre with strong political messages continue to dominate and we continue to be inspired and agree with said messages. But shouldn’t those who don’t ‘get it’ be the target audience? Farah Najib discusses.
It is playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker who first introduced me to the notion of theatre as a political force. During my A-Levels, I studied her now infamous play, Our Country’s Good – which depicts a group of convicts putting on a play – and my eyes were opened to what Wertenbaker has described as the “redemptive power of theatre.” Now, as a near-graduate of applied theatre, I see exactly what she meant.
The practice of applied theatre is often concerned with tackling and raising awareness of a wide variety of ‘issues’, from homelessness to domestic abuse; women’s rights to queer identities. The list is endless. Often, it’s about engaging groups with theatre who wouldn’t normally – just like in Wertenbaker’s play. And so, plays with a Big Political Point are part and parcel of both the kind of work I see and the kind of work I make. Despite all this though, I know that the idea of theatre as a force for changing the world is certainly not without faults.
Recently, I’ve noticed something in the theatre. There’s a play unfolding on stage. It’s making some important points. Often, it’s making them in exciting, innovative, challenging ways. Then I look at the people around me – and at myself – and what I see is an audience that are already on side. An audience who already have an understanding and awareness of, or even a very personal relation to, what’s being said.
Plays about #metoo play to audiences of feminists. Plays about LGBTQ+ identities play to those who fall under this umbrella, and their allies. Plays about growing up with less play to working-class artists. Plays about Britain’s violent colonial history play to those who already have some knowledge of it and continue to experience the fall-out. These statements run the risk of over-simplifying the issue, of course, but let me give an example.
I recently reviewed The Grenfell Project at the Hope Theatre in Islington. This was a piece aiming to examine the way that Grenfell has slowly but surely disappeared from public conversation, and the way victims and their families have been – and continue to be – neglected by politicians and the government. It was a moving piece by a passionate troupe of young performers that featured verbatim words from victims and firefighters, criticised politicians, as well as being very informative.
However, the audience was tiny (in an already small venue) and those who were there made clear through their tears, cheers and nods of agreement that they were very much on side with the rage expressed by the piece. It seemed that those in the audience were there for a reason: they too were angry about this neglect or had a personal relation to the events. So I can’t help but wonder: what is it really achieving?
How would the meaning of The Grenfell Project have differed had it been seen, for example, by the very politicians who are discussed? Or by a rich organisation that donates hundreds of thousands to the re-building of Notre Dame, but nothing to causes like Grenfell? Or simply by a wealthy Kensington resident who hasn’t given a thought to the fire in over a year?
I would argue that, in the theatre industry, it’s easy to take for granted the echo chamber in which we exist. We like to make theatre that has a point – and I am no exception to that. But what are we really doing when we’re making these points to people who already ‘get it’? I think it’s important to consider the problems of socially-conscious theatre playing to audiences of nice, liberal, lefties who can leave feeling like they’ve done something good by engaging with a political play, speaking about it for a little while, and then never thinking about it again. Again, I’m including myself in this.
I don’t have the answer to such questions. Maybe, the key to accessing different audiences altogether lies in the marketing of a piece. It’s no easy task getting someone who may be adverse to, defensive about, or even prejudiced against a topic, to come and watch a play about it. Perhaps it’s a case of being less upfront about subject matter, which may then lead to deception. It’s impossible to say.
Recently, I saw Fight or Flight Productions’ new show Like You Hate Me, which follows the fragmented history of a same-sex relationship – a fact that was clear in the marketing. Two women sitting near me walked out. Later, they told the artistic director of the Lion & Unicorn Theatre that “they just couldn’t watch two women kissing any longer.” For whatever reason they felt compelled to come and see a show which wasn’t aligned with their morals, and said show wasn’t able to keep them there long enough to think a little differently.
We mustn’t raise theatre up on a pedestal as an infallible tool of consciousness-raising. But we must keep considering what the actual impact of our work is if it doesn’t go beyond keenly listening ears.