Staging ideas: politics of form and content

Submitted by Matthew on 27 March, 2013 - 10:24

I would identify myself as a socialist as well as a theatre-maker.

But someone viewing my work would not necessarily describe it as socialist theatre. Not because it’s apolitical, but because I wouldn’t say the theatre that I make is explicitly socialist (in the way we perhaps might describe Ken Loach as a socialist film director). However, I believe that what makes drama political is not just the themes the text discusses — whether it involves political events, characters, or explicit political arguments — but the form the theatre takes itself.

Radical theatre has never just been radical ideas played out: it is reinventing the form.

In his article in Solidarity 278, “Putting Working-Class Voices Centre Stage”, Edd Mustill rightly highlights how the accusation of dogmatism is unfairly targeted at left-wing texts, whereas more liberal theatre is allowed to be as moralistic as it likes.

Equally rightly, he makes the point that, “There are human stories at the heart of political events, just as much as there are at the kitchen sink or between an arguing couple placed in a black box theatre” — and, further, that this — the arguing kitchen-sink drama couple — doesn’t hold much weight without the shadow of bigger political context hanging above it.

This idea of dogmatism is something I’d like to elaborate on. Whether or not left-wing theatre is rightly or wrongly labeled dogmatic isn’t the issue for me: whatever the political ideas (both those I agree and disagree with), I do have a problem with dogmatic, or didactic, theatre.

If you have an idea, or a message, or something you want to tell the world, what has made you decide that the best method to communicate this is theatrically? Is it something that would be much better explained in article or book? Is it really a piece of drama? Not because “messages” don’t have a place in theatre, they do, but because so often I think political theatre misses the way in which theatre can be inherently political: it is live, it is active. Like education, it can be transitive and dialectic.

As political creatives we should avoid producing theatre that is just preaching a message, because we are missing using the form of theatre itself to its full political potential. Playing with form, i.e. how we communicate the message, can be more politically powerful than the words themselves (we could just read words — how does performance bring out meaning?). This is two-fold: how do we perform the message, and how does the audience receive it?

I think verbatim is a wonderful example of this. Verbatim theatre is the performance of exact-word-for-word speech from real people. Here we are beginning to experiment with form by playing with the real and non-real (real words in an artificial context).

Playing with the real and non-real is something I am especially interested in as a theatre-practitioner, mainly because it changes the audience’s relationship to the event. I like the idea of the audience being complicit in the performance: they become co-creators… or co-conspirators.

I run the risk of suggesting that all political theatre has to be some far-out, wacky, devised piece, with perhaps the audiences locked in cages staged in a car park (sounds cool). But even what are deemed as straight, text-based plays that seek to be political ought to play around with form, and use it to their political advantage. For example Lucy Kirkwood’s “NSFW”, recently performed at the Royal Court, excellently used plot revelation as a tool to make political points.

Essentially theatre does not have to rely on its text to be political.

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