Political Theatre Thrives Once More in Brexit-Era London

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Ben Whishaw in Christopher Shinn's Against. Photo: Johan Persson.

Political theatre in London’s West End has rarely seemed stronger or more welcome. For an industry that delights in the trivial, with escapist, big-budget musicals primarily imported from NYC, audiences have become democratised and frequently are fed much-needed light relief. For those looking to see the world in which they live reflected back at them, however, the options are increasing — even bountiful.

Following the historic Brexit vote in June 2016, I argued,

Theatre has a responsibility to heal this wound and play its part in uniting the country…. London needs to wake up and look outside of the bubble. Our theatre must represent and reflect the full extent of our political crisis around our country.

I still believe this, but I can report that some regional theatres are rising to the challenge, nurturing local stories outside of traditional programming.

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This is not to say that West End theatre remains apolitical: I cannot remember a time when so many of our mainstream theatres offered such heated perspectives on the world in which we now live. Yet as Brexit continues to dominate the news, and as the UK’s two main political parties rally to solidify and grow their base and appear “strong and stable,” no single play has come to the fore with a clear, direct perspective on the state of the nation.

Many plays, of course, have a go at it, particularly at such new-play venues as The Royal Court, The Bush and The National Theatre. Lately, too, there’s something altogether refreshing about politics entering the commercial West End — and, indeed, discovering a new, diverse audience. While it’s easy to dismiss theatregoing as a liberal pastime, the West End audience appears to have a broad church, if you will, of opinion.

The current bump in commercial political drama is partly attributable to James Graham, with two plays on this season. The first, Ink, a portrait of the young Rupert Murdoch that moved from the Almeida Theatre to the Duke of York’s, is running through January. The second is a comedy about the Labour Party, the aptly-named Labour of Love, which is that rare breed: an original play premiering directly in the West End without a tryout, preview or previous theatrical run.

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With these plays, Graham, whom The Guardian has called a “political anorak,” adds the Labour Party and the 2017 shock election to a string of dramatic topics that include the inner workings of Parliament during the 1970 minority governments as well as government surveillance and sexuality in the modern political system. That co-producers Headlong and the Michael Grandage Theatre Company backed a direct commercial run for Labour of Love indicates that West End audiences demand a theatre that reflects and responds to current events.

They say that a rising tide lifts all boats. So perhaps the rise of Ink and Labour of Love is a by-product of the commercial success of another deep political drama. That would be Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, one of the year’s biggest hits and a likely candidate for the Olivier Award, an epic domestic drama set in Derry, Northern Ireland in the 1980s. Originating at the Royal Court, The Ferryman earned unanimous five-star reviews and already had a West End transfer in the cards, courtesy of director Sam Mendes and producer Sonia Friedman. Butterworth — of Jerusalem and The River fame — uses the context of the Irish Republican Army during “The Troubles” to tell an intense family drama which, for all its “plastic paddy” reductions (not every Irish party ends with whisky and traditional dancing), brings the politics of Northern Ireland to the fore. On the surface, it might seem that Butterworth’s subject matter is late to the party in terms of immediate relevance, but dig deeper: the red lines of the Brexit negotiations concern, in part, the notion of a hard border between the north and south of Ireland. Old tensions are already rising.

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Meanwhile, American politics is also alive and ailing on UK stages: the Edinburgh Fringe Festival found itself dominated by Trump caricatures and satires. Curiously, however, the “Orange Manbaby” has so far kept off the West End stage. Perhaps playwright Christopher Shinn will change that — or come close, at any rate. His plays, particularly during the ’00s at the Royal Court, are familiar to our audiences, and now Against, at the Almeida, explodes contemporary America into a compelling look at the nature of violence and how we react to political and personal angst.

Against finds Ben Whishaw playing a Christ-like, Mark Zuckerberg-esque hero who throws himself into troubled communities to help them heal. Through this lens, Shinn examines established capitalist hierarchies that we’ve come to take for granted, not to mention the injustices and exploitation that come with them. In some respects, Shinn’s latest work has a touch of the morality play in it. As his central character is urged to “go where there’s violence,” British audiences are not only stepping away from the predictable escapism, they’re going where there’s politics.

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Examining contemporary America at a distance is perhaps easier to do than in the eye of the storm, and no doubt Against will find a second life further afield, hopefully in the US itself. His fellow American, J.T Rodgers, has seen his fascinating, Tony-winning drama, Oslo, open at the National Theatre for a sold-out run amid stellar reviews, and then move to the West End. Dense, compressed, yet penetrable, Rodgers’ dramatisation of the 1990s Oslo Accords, which established the framework for a Middle East peace that was ultimately not to be, is an unlikely candidate for a three-hour entertainment. Rodgers’ ability to fashion a complex narrative, and Bartlett Sher’s skillful direction, results in much more than a political history lesson. Now at the Harold Pinter Theatre, Oslo is successfully competing against such commercial shows as 42nd Street, An American in Paris and Dreamgirls for its share of the audience.

The British theatre still awaits a full response to the earthquake of Brexit. But important groundwork is being laid. Political theatre is once again proving its capacity to connect with audiences and to inspire debate, on and off the stage.