Five plays for the day

Theatre Uncut 2014 – Soho Theatre

Theatre Uncut will be in Brighton, Bristol, Canterbury and Liverpool in December 2014. For more details and to book tickets check outTheatre Uncut’s website

The Theatre Uncut project is now four years old. That is four years of coalition cuts, four years of the retrenchment of public services and four years where the quiet desperation of those without a voice has remained largely unheard. In that time Theatre Uncut has expanded so that it has now been performed in 17 countries across 4 continents. It has also started its first national tour and this year, through online polling and through a workshop process, writers chose to focus on the topic; ‘Knowledge is power, knowledge is change’.

10495065_755198004552857_8325607810536121571_oOne of the most interesting aspects of the process is finding out how five different writers decided to interpret the statement and how they decided to engage with the overtly political process of writing under these conditions.

Perhaps most surprisingly, and most refreshingly, is that a number of the plays focus on the personal more than the political. There was a balance that helped stop the gnawing sense that the whole programme was little more of an anguished wail of the liberal left against a coalition government that (like it or not) had every right to govern and who had been tasked with reducing a sky-rocketing debit burden following the global economic meltdown.

The variety on display meant it avoided the sense of lecture and the evening was leavened by a remarkable versatility in the well-judged humour throughout. It starts off in a blackly comic tone with ‘The Finger Of God’, which could easily have slid out of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror-inflected fevered imagination. It takes a classically dystopian near-future world where the lottery is seeking to ramp up interest in its games due to falling public demand. On one hand we get a rather obvious satire of the powerful slowly ramping up the consequences of playing but on the other we get a more nuanced look at those who continue to play the game even when it is so clearly rigged.

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The Theatre of Politics

This House – National Theatrebooking until 16 May

This House has been the surprise package of what is proving to be a very successful season for the National – defying the surrounding economic gloom with a string of sell-out hits. It was inevitable that tickets for The Effect, Lucy Prebble’s follow-up to ENRON, and the latest Alan Bennett play would be scarcer than gold dust.

However This House did appear to be an altogether tougher sell; a play based almost entirely back rooms of Parliament, set between 1974 and 1979 and refusing the safety-net of caricature by eschewing references to MPs byPhil_Daniels_This_House name. Unless one held an acute knowledge of mid-70’s parliamentary constituencies it paid little concession to providing a Spitting Image-style satire on its subjects other than references to a certain ‘MP for Finchley’ and a fleeting appearance from a young Michael Heseltine.

As a self-confessed political and theatrical nerd none of this was particularly troubling as seeing the political process dissected on stage was the real joy. The likes of David Hare may stage politics with a big ‘P’, and there have always been any number of young tyros looking to reflect the impact of politics on society, but the institutions – the strange and archaic mechanisms that have supported one of the world’s longest running parliamentary democracies seem to have been rarely considered by playwrights.

Lord Scarman summed up the position eloquently in the late 80’s when he referred to the fact that the people are ‘only occasional partners in the constitutional minuet danced for most of the time by Parliament and the political party in power’. For all the radicalism of playwrights and protestors, politicians continue serenely onwards, safe in the institutions that have bent, flexed and twisted but never entirely shattered over the centuries. The British parliamentary system finds durability in its seeming lack of permanence. The lack of a codified constitution allows great flexibility in its approach; rules are in place because they are in place and always have been in place, not because they are written down in a book.

The very essence of maintaining the status quo, a great British tradition, is built into this approach. Without an awareness of the rules, and without any access to them, how can someone challenge the system? It is into these murky waters that James Graham’s This House looks to shine a light. It illuminates the hidden world of small ‘p’ politics; the grindingly mundane processes that allow the Government to govern and teases out exactly what happens when the metaphorical rulebook is thrown out of the metaphorical window.

So much of Parliament – the opening of Parliament by Black Rod, the Queen’s Speech, Prime Minister’s Question Time – is laced with symbolism about the importance of the function it serves, even if these aspects mean nothing to actual governing. James Graham and Jeremy Herrin have intrinsically grasped the parallels with theatre, which is that behind the spectacle there are those working themselves to the bone to keep the wheels turning and where power really resides. This is why the play focuses on the political Whips; the backroom boys who ensure that everything happens on time, that people know what they are supposed to be doing and that things actually happen.

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