Three new political plays invoke the idea of the people, two with naive gusto and one more scepticallyby Sameer Rahim / March 31, 2017 / Leave a comment
Right from its origins in Ancient Greece theatre has been the site of political argument. People with opposing perspectives clash over the best course of action. Can we bury that traitor inside the city walls? Should I kill my murderous uncle? Sitting in judgement is the audience—the embodiment of “the people.” Ah, the people. That mythical constituency in whose name so much is claimed. Yet the theatre—and politics—would be nothing without them.
Three political plays currently on in London all invoke the idea of “the people”—two with naive gusto, one with measured scepticism. Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere is written by the former Newsnight correspondent Paul Mason, drawing on his book of the same name. The play follows “Paul Mason,” (played by Paul Mason) as he interviews protestors at various hotspots—Athens during the eurozone crisis, Tahrir Square as Mubarak fell, New York during the Occupy movement. Interspersed are reflections by Paul Mason.
(Did I mention Paul Mason was involved?)
It opened with our heroic leader striding round the stage like a cross between Che Guevara and Jeremy Clarkson. He was lecturing hippies in London about the Paris commune. The gist, I think, was that sexy revolutionaries were crushed by the evil state. That set the tone: it was good guys versus bad guys all the way through to the inevitable appearance of Donald Trump.
All these battles were presented as repetitions of previous ones. Events were drained of specificity. So unemployed American graduates in Brooklyn were deemed to be fighting the same battle as Egyptians risking their lives in Cairo. Any actual connections there might be between the financial crisis and the Arab Spring—rising bread prices, for example—were left untouched. All that’s left is glamorous rebellion.
The audience here played “the people.” We were asked to chant in Arabic, “The People Want the Fall of the Regime.” The people, naturally, are always in the right. So there was no encouragement to self-reflection. The most successful radical anti-western group in the world—Islamic State—was barely mentioned; but they are “the people” too. As 1917 taught us, “the people”—or rather those acting in their name—can sometimes be completely wrong.
The only saving grace was actor and activist Khalid Abdalla, who played characters from Tahrir Square, and offered nuanced reflections during the discussion at the end. Someone give him a one-man show.
The National Theatre’s verbatim play My Country; a work in progress offered a different version of the same problem. In the wake of the EU referendum, Rufus Norris and Carol Ann Duffy arranged interviews with that fabled species, “ordinary people.” Actors played individuals from different areas of the United Kingdom, reflecting on what the nation means. The purpose was to shock a complacent liberal London into hearing the ignored voices from Brexitland.
Unfortunately all we got was a cacophony of stereotypes: gobby Geordie, whiskey-obsessed Scotsman, hard-working immigrant etc. The ugly side of the country was given ample space. I’ve rarely seen such racially charged language on a London stage; frankly, it was a little disturbing. As with Mason’s play, what was singularly lacking was argument. There were reasons to vote for Brexit and to want to restrict immigration. None of them were made here. We simply had repeated back to us the lazy thinking we hear all the time in tabloid newspapers. Was it terribly elitist of me to yearn for some experts?
A more enjoyable theatrical experience is to be found in Limehouse by Steve Waters. Here the idea of the “people” was more interestingly interrogated. The play is set on 25th January 1981, when Labour’s Gang of Four broke away to form the SDP. A fictionalised version of David Owen invites Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and Bill Rodgers to his Thames-side East London House. (Full marks to the set design team: it was a perfect recreation). Unlike Mason’s lot, these are radical moderates.
From the opening line, “The Labour Party’s fucked,” it’s clear Waters is as interested in current dilemmas as in past ones. (There’s a crowd-pleasing joke when someone suggests they name the proposed party: “New Labour.”) Its focus on personalities feels true to what politics is really like in practice. Shirley Williams has her ego stroked with promises of leadership; David Owen is calmed down by his canny wife; Roy Jenkins—played by a sublime Roger Allam—is beguiled by posh wine; and put-upon Bill Rogers must feel valued enough to join an enterprise that he knows will make him hated.
All have their say in long speeches. Some reviewers have described this as schematic but it feels true to the oratorical tropes of Greek drama or even Thucydides. As the arguments ebbed and flowed, the audience was dragged in one direction, then another. Like any good tragedy, either choice leads to disaster. But still a choice must be made.
The problem for the SDP, as the play acknowledges, is that it was an elite creation. A vital ingredient was missing. Protestors or politicians might call it “the people” but really what they mean is a large interest group. That gets at the truth of what politics is: different people competing to get what they want. In a democracy, this means recognising that each constituency has no monopoly on righteousness—much less on power. In the end they must come to an accommodation with other people.