Sunday, 10 May 2015

Politics redux

A few years ago I had a blog called "One writer and his dog". From time to time I've thought about reviving it, particularly as the 140 characters available on twitter seem woefully inadequate for any sort of meaningful debate about the things I'm passionate about; writing and politics. Now a few things have come together that make me feel now's a good time if not to revive the old blog but to begin a new one.

So what are those reasons?

I guess the general election result which was and is devastating for many of us on the liberal-left is one trigger but I've been concerned too for some time that new theatre is becoming too inward-looking, focused disproportionately on formal experiment and innovation, and collapsing the boundaries between traditional theatre and play-making, and live art. The energy appears often to be with the auteur director, whether Goold or Van Hove. Of course there's nothing wrong with these things, indeed formal innovation led by writers from Beckett and Osborne, through to Kane and Churchill, now to Goode and Stephens is part of the very rejuvenating lifeblood of the theatre.

It's not my complaint that there is so much innovative work being made. Its just that with so much focus at the cutting edge of formal innovation and process within the theatre, the impetus in making new work is often by default inward-looking and self-referential. But new forms are not the only part of the story in a vigorous new theatre which can reach out to a wide audience. As Sarah Kane understood the form and content should be one. So what new stories are we telling (how about Routes by Rachel De-lahay?) How are new stories told engaging vibrantly with old forms (how about the wonderful King Charles III?) or old stories engaging with new forms (I haven't seen it but I guess Carmen Disruption would be a great example). Is how we make work for us or our audience? How do we reach not the 9% but the 91% of our population who don't go to the theatre? How do we overcome our metro-centric focus and make work and shape a theatre that is genuinely representative of our nation? What a scandal that so few plays written by women are produced.

I don't have answers to these questions but I feel we should in the theatre really begin to try and answer them. Of course, as its obvious (see above) the theatre is addressing the bigger picture beyond making at the cutting edge formally. But how do we reach the 91%? I feel certain that the silly notion that theatre should be more theatrical or more collaborative (as if an act of theatre isn't by default either theatrical or collaborative) won't help us now any more than it did in the 1980's. Nor will a return to the hectoring political theatre of the 1980's. At worst the theatre reeks of sanctimony and self-satisfaction when it does so. A self--congratulatory 9% strategy will ensure the life of theatre in my lifetime I'm sure, but it won't ensure the life of theatre over my son's lifetime. So we have a responsibility to reach the 91%. I don't care much for those in theatre who put ideological and aesthetic purity above reaching and challenging a broad and wide audience. They will lead the theatre in to the wilderness.

Labour had a 35% strategy to win the election or at least to be able to lead a new liberal-left coalition. It didn't work. We on the liberal-left were so busy being annoyed with the bastard coalition of 2010-15 that we didn't see that it was possible that people outside of our immediate social and professional circles would not agree, and indeed that Labour policies and it's narrative would fail even to reach the 35%. We have to face the facts to the majority of people living in this country, far greater than the notional 35%, Labour seems metro-centric, inward-looking, against aspiration, it doesn't appear any more to know what it stands for beyond a vague idea and assumption it is morally and ethically superior. It's not connecting outside of London and the north of England with ordinary working class, the blue-collar class or middle class people.

People don't think Labour is for them. Just as 91% of the population don't think theatre is for them.

At a conference I attended recently I sat on a panel with Chris Campbell, the literary manager of the Royal Court Theatre. He made an impassioned call for a "reverse Brechtianism", fearing that theatre had recently concentrated too much on the head and not the heart. He said we had to tell new stories that made an audience feel, which I took to mean to connect emotionally. It also made me think of John Osborne's notion that he wanted to give an audience "lessons in feeling".

I agree with Chris. I've always felt you make more of an impact by making an audience laugh and cry and catching them in a drama, and telling story and exploring ideas through dramatic action. People want to go the theatre when they think they're going to have "a good night out", Outside of the liberal-left arts silo people funnily enough don't want to go to theatre if they feel its going to make them feel stupid or lectured. Post-dramatic theatre or an auteur's flourish won't attract the 91%.

As I tweeted on May 8th "I'm a #Labour man through and through but its wrong to attack the electorate. The liberal-left has to win votes not blame voters for losing". While I've written more for TV recently I'm also a man of the theatre. I don't want to write for the 9% I want to write for the 91%.

More before too long.