Brexit: British Theatre Must Respond

Strange times -- for the theater, too. Photo: iStock.

On Fri., June 24, Britain woke up with a stinking hangover. The past three weeks have been some of the most interesting and exciting weeks to fall on Westminster in living history and the aftershocks continue to be felt on a daily basis. To make matters worse was what happened on that post-Brexit morning: Donald Trump landed on British soil to open a golf course, used the opportunity to (shocker) steal the moment and state that Britain — even as the pound tumbled to a 30-year low and hundreds of thousands of people worried for their jobs and some on the south coast reported that the waters of the English Channel turned to blood — was “taking back control,” and that was a positive outcome. Imagine said hangover with a headlamp shining directly at your face and you’ll understand how many of us felt.

In the weeks since, hardly a day has passed without a political resignation — the trio responsible for Brexit all threw in their towels and both parties faced dramatic leadership challenges, from a more traditional vote on the right to the least inspiring “coup” in history on the left, which is in the middle of an existentialist crisis that left them ultimately confused about their base.

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No one can say that this is not a time of high drama, and events are occurring almost too quickly to comment on them. As of writing, Theresa May is about to become the second female Prime Minister, after a brief week of a Tory leadership battle which ended in junior minister Andrea Leadsom jumping ship, following a probing Times weekend interview. It’s House of Cards meets Game of Thrones, and political dramatists are scribbling away as fast as humanly possible.

With 48% of the population mourning the result of the Brexit vote, mounting petitions and marching on Parliament, it’s fair to say that the overall mood in Britain right now is somewhat bleak. Following the referendum result, when the lies on both sides began to unravel quicker than a cashmere jumper in a hot wash, even the “winning” side seemed to have little to feel positive about with instant talk of “buyer’s remorse” from many who had voted leave and “didn’t realize that their vote would actually count…” The mind boggles.

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But as news cycles spin into overdrive, politics has become theatre, complete with a full dramatis personae that would suitably challenge even Shakespeare’s imagination. The current political climate is a hotbed for satirists and dramatists, the result of which we can only hope will be explored on stages in the very near future. Political theatre in Britain has a strong history of being “on trend,” with the history of the Royal Court and even the National Theatre providing environments for writers both old and new to comment on society. Whilst the remit of the Royal Court will always be to reflect contemporary Britain, this revolutionary spirit, in the affluent and trendy area of West London, can arguably be seen as preaching to the choir. Audiences arrive ready to think, ready to be challenged and ready to extend the drama beyond the stage to the modern world. But for this earthquake to be felt, it needs to make headway in the commercial West End, as well as the rest of the country.

Keeping political theatre in safe confines of the nonprofit sector is the theatrical equivalent of the vacuum that is social media, which has turned our lives into a one-way street of political opinion that can be liked and hidden at the click of a button. Our social media streams are designed to reflect our interests and likes — both Twitter and Facebook have built-in algorithms designed to show us exactly that, meaning that things we don’t like, including opinions we don’t share, are simply hidden from view. In the (overly long) run up to the referendum, complacency certainly set in, and, judging by my own social media, it’s not hard to see why. I literally didn’t see one of my 700 or so Facebook friends presenting a case for leaving the EU, be that sharing a news article, commenting on a post or offering an outright persuasive view. As our outlook narrowed, it became harder to see beyond the agreeable noise.

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Theatre needs to respond to and address this issue as much as it needs to respond to the actual events occurring in Parliament. I am a firm believer that theatre is one of the most powerful mediums to express social discontent and the need for change, but for this to happen in the climate of 2016, it needs to not become a preoccupation of the “liberal media elite” who are finding themselves criticised from a variety of angles, but rather to represent and originate in those areas of Britain that find themselves in the most unstable, politically discontent areas of the country.

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As the referendum results began to trickle in, the pound plummeted following the count return from Sunderland — a region in northeast England, a few constituencies north of where I was born and grew up. Since moving to London almost a decade ago, I have found myself completely absorbed by this metropolitan, cosmopolitan, diverse, culturally rich city, but this referendum has brought my personal north/south divide sharply into question. A difficult family meal a week after the result ended up like an Albee play mixed with Stephen Karam’s The Humans, and the generational divide was as clear as our geographic locations. Never have I felt the north/south divide so strongly within my own family, and never have I felt so distant from my roots.

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I’m used to Southern bias and Northern stereotypes, so much so that I’m probably immune to them. From the first day at University when a colleague (who I feel justified describing in hindsight as a “posh public-school twat”) said in a loud voice, “I do hope no one on this course is from the North…” to rapturous laughter from my new found “friends,” I’ve experienced first-hand the deep divisions within the country. The Brexit vote reignited my consciousness to this and has challenged my shifted outlook.

Theatre has a responsibility to heal this wound and play its part in uniting the country. As much as I love the ethos and history of the Royal Court, and count the National Theatre as one of my favourite places, as institutions they couldn’t feel further away from the northeast of England where I grew up. 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.

The commercial West End has seen recent examples of important political theatre, sitting on Shaftesbury Avenue alongside Motown, Kinky Boots and The Lion King, which is certainly refreshing. Max Stafford-Clark’s Out of Joint Theatre Company recently ran a collection of five political satires at the Arts Theatre, entitled A View From Islington North, encompassing the work of some of Britain’s most celebrated political writers, including Caryl Churchill, David Hare and Alistair Beaton. Beaton’s play was perhaps the timeliest, contemplating a political coup of the Labour Party as those within the party plotted to oust their own leader. This satire certainly felt close to the bone, and in the ever-shifting political climate, fully representative of an ongoing and developing situation.

The National Theatre have given the commercial West End commentary of the News of the World phone hacking scandal in Richard Bean’s sharp but slightly obvious comedy, Great Britain, which dropped overnight like a Beyoncé album. Its 2014 production of James Graham’s This House returns to the West End later this year, exploring the 1979 vote of no-confidence in the government of James Callaghan, and will no doubt have a rejuvenated sense of importance and historical parallels. Just last week, on the evening of the Chilcot Report, the National staged a re-reading of its 2004 production of David Hare’s Stuff Happens, which mixes verbatim arguments for the invasion of Iraq. We are lucky to have such writers, directors and companies to create this political theatre, but the next challenge is to get it outside London and to let it find a new voice.

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One of the most exciting and daring political productions also ran last week at the Young Vic Theatre and is set to embark on a UK tour — breaking out of the London-centric bubble and performing in cities such as Durham, Leeds, Liverpool and Edinburgh. Queens of Syria is a modern retelling of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, and features 13 Syrian women bringing the text up to date with their own personal stories and testimonies. None of them are professional actors; instead they speak from the heart and provide what the Guardian described as “the most urgent work on the London stage.” It’s a new, bold breed of political theatre; the entire creative team and producers should be commended for their commitment and delivery. As well as the strength of the piece, the fact that it has been programmed to travel around the UK, including the northeast of England, is a remarkable and important achievement.

As our political crisis continues to develop almost hourly, I can only imagine the speed of which writers — both dramatists and satirists — are working in order to make some form of entertainment out of these unprecedented series of events. We, as audience and electorate, must hope that this commentary will come from all ends of the nation, offering the widest and most challenging perspective on events as they continue to unfold. Until then, we can all kick back and watch the reality unfold in real time and look forward to some form of final act dénouement from which Britain can begin to repair its wounds.