Theatre Enters Stage Left

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Theatre can be a forum for debate and encourage collective action.

Recently I was rereading some of John McGrath's essays on political theatre in his book 'Naked Thoughts That Roam About'. McGrath, who died last year, set up the 7:84 theatre group (7 percent owning 84 percent of the wealth) to create an agitprop theatre for the generation of anti Vietnam War protesters.

Of course, anyone who was around then will remember those terrible plays where someone with an eyepatch or wearing a bin liner gave a long lecture on surplus value to a willing audience. Or those interminable songs delivered with an earnest warble to three chords on a guitar that warned a complacent world that 'the new times are a-comin'.

But there was good political theatre too, the kind that McCrath was often involved in creating. His 1973 piece 'The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil' took on myths of Scottishness, the realities of the oil industry, and the speculators and property magnates who wanted to turn Loch Lomond into a theme park. And he did it with music, wit and laughter as well as passion. Did it affect political life? I think it did. It created a place for debate in a spirit of joyful argument and banter; it took politics into the realm of passion and gave it a common language; above all, it located theatre once again in popular traditions of cabaret, communal singing, circus and cartoons.

Most importantly, perhaps, it tried (and sometimes, but not always, managed) to put the recognisable lives of real people on the stage. It's a tradition Ken Loach has tried to maintain in cinema. But film can't reproduce that sense of intimacy that the theatre can give you, that feeling that you could reach out and touch these half-familiar people--and that they'd respond in predictable ways.

There are still people out there who have survived from those times--Trevor Griffiths, David Edgar, and some others. But in these recent weeks, as a new movement has taken to the streets and tentatively tested out new slogans, or the old ones with adaptations, you couldn't help feeling that it was time for the return of agitprop, of an unashamedly political performance that was part of our reappropriation of the world. There has already been some of it in the anti-capitalist movement--those turtles and samba bands that brought together world music, the environment and the discarded props department of some closed-down TV studio.

It is important to remember what McCrath said in his famous piece 'A Good Night Out'. It isn't enough to be politically correct; political cabaret is not a lecture delivered in a funny hat. It can be subtle and searching, tender and disturbing. Above all, as McCrath says, it has to be funny, musical, and rooted in popular traditions of challenge and satire.

You might argue that the telly has killed all those traditions--that the only humour anyone wants is 'Jackass' and the public humiliation (voluntary or not) of ordinary people for the pleasure of others like themselves. It's what the mass media would like us to think--that the relentless narcissism of 'Friends', where people spend years examining their own or at the very most their best friend's embarrassment, is all there is. That we can only be moved to react by the spectacle of someone naked in a shopping mall or drowning in a barrel of beer.

But hundreds of thousands of us have left the sofa and gathered in the street. And having taken it back perhaps it's also time to make it into a cultural space again, a place of argument, debate, encounters--a place to be collective. Theatre has its place there--to inform, to argue back, to act out with others the past and the future and cross the line between art and ourselves.

In recent years, art has been taken from us as a means of understanding and expression. The artists we see and hear the most are selfabsorbed and uncommunicative. Their works are often big but they are usually private nonetheless, forged in a language that excludes an audience who can only be spectators. But look what happens when Anthony Gormley puts art back into the world-like the Angel of the North or his recent project to fill a museum space with the bodies of living people.

Theatre, too, seems to have become increasingly divided between the intensely private and the public spectacle. We go to admire and gasp, not to be drawn in. Dario Fo was one theatre maker who tried by every means to overcome that distancing and draw his audiences back into an active conspiracy with the writer and the actors. But in the end the success or failure of his work could only be measured in the rising numbers becoming active in the world.

It's time to leave Lloyd Webber and Damien Hirst behind and create an art that unashamedly connects with public questions--and work to create the open collective spaces where they can be asked and answered.