Red Room debate on political theatre

26th September 2003



Lisa Goldman, artistic director of the Red Room, joins Aleks Sierz and Carole Woddis to talk politics. Dominic Cavendish hosts.

There is a democratic deficit in society at the moment. I think that we can all agree about that.


DEBATE: POLITICAL THEATRE Lisa Goldman, artistic director of The Red Room, joins Aleks Sierz and Carole Woddis to talk politics. Dominic Cavendish hosts.

Recorded: 26 September 2003

Transcribed by the V&A © This transcript is copyright of the Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If you wish to refer to this in publication its reference is DEBATE: POLITICAL THEATRE and you must quote the url in your address bar.

David Cavendish: In her introduction to the published text of a fascinating play by Kate Adshead called Animal, the director Lisa Goldman draws parallels between the fictitious events of the drama and the mood of contemporary Britain. Animal envisages a dystopian riot and repression-filled Britain, where behaviour-altering psychoactive drugs are being tested for possible use to subdue the dissenting population. Goldman writes in her preface: “We are living through extraordinary times. Earlier this year, two million people marched in London against a Labour government’s drive to barbaric war. There is growing public disillusionment with British institutions, and a demand for greater levels of democracy and accountability.” She goes on, “There has certainly been a resurgence of art activism on the street. Perhaps we are moving, finally, into a new age of public theatre.” That’s the framework for this afternoon’s debate, an opportunity to discuss whether something is, in fact, changing in British theatre at the moment. Lisa Goldman joins me, as does the critic Aleks Sierz and Carole Woddis, critic for the Glasgow Herald. Lisa, as the Artistic Director of The Red Room, a company which you set up in 1995, you’ve obviously given a huge amount of thought to the nature of political theatre, and I thought it might be useful to go around the table, starting with you first, to try and define what that phrase means.

Lisa Goldman: Well this is a really difficult question, this question of definition of political theatre, and it always comes up, and in a way I think it holds us back from actually talking about the real issues involved. Partly because, depending which way you look at it, you could either say that all theatre is, in a sense, political, in that it’s all ideologically described in some sense or another. Or you might say that political theatre is only that theatre which is very consciously seeking to change the status quo and is political in that sense, and that’s the sense in which it tends to be used. But I suppose that I would put forward that maybe a better definition for that theatre of change is public theatre, because, in a sense that sidelines the notion of political theatre which is very tricky and difficult, and full of all sorts of stereotypes. And actually perhaps opens out a new, perhaps a fresher debate, so perhaps the definition of public theatre might be a more useful way of talking about theatre which is dealing with public issues and seeking to change, because it also includes within it notions of public engagement, public access, public responsibility. All of which at the moment are very important questions for society as a whole, but obviously particularly in terms of our debate, for theatre practitioners and audiences.

DC: That’s interesting, it’s not an academic definition: it seems to be based on your experience as a practitioner. One of the academic books on the subject that’s currently in print is called Strategies of Political Theatre by Michael Patterson, published by the Cambridge University Press. He opens the book by defining political theatre as “the kind of theatre that not only depicts social interaction and political events, but implies the possibility of radical change along socialist lines.” When you talk about connotations that are un-useful or unfortunate, but perhaps one of the connotations that is un-useful is that political theatre entails radical change and radical change along socialist lines. Aleks Sierz, do you have a nutshell definition?

Aleks Sierz: I find it very problematic, mainly because since the 1970s when feminism taught us that the personal was political, that implies that in fact there is politics even in a play about ‘me and my mates’, and that any relationship has some questions of power that are worth discussing. However, if you say that all theatre therefore is political, you got a real problem, because if everything’s political then nothing is political. So I find it quite hard to make a distinction but yet I seem to be able to recognise a political play when I see one, so it’s usually something in which there are explicit political ideas, and that’s how I would define it. I know that’s, sort of, rather weak, so I remember talking to the playwright David Greig where he said, echoing the quote that you’ve [DC] just given, that theatre must posit the possibility of change, and I suppose that’s quite a good definition. The problem is what is the quality of that change, how strongly a particular play posits it, and whether it actually improves the drama and makes the play a better play because of that.

DC: Let’s take it from there, then. Political theatre involves something that has an explicitly political content. Is that something that you would sign up to, Carole?

Carole Woddis: I just wanted to throw something in, actually, whilst Aleks was talking, and that made me think of Oscar Wilde. And I thought: do we count, if you think of, for example, A Woman of No Importance, which has been revived, not one of the great plays, but if you consider Oscar Wilde and what he was doing and everything that he wrote, if you can put aside the witticisms, which even in themselves are saying something very interesting, the whole of his canon of work is as it were positing a change from the status quo. He’s constantly shafting the Establishment even while he seems to be feeding into the Establishment because he’s massaging their psyches with the way that the plays look etc. So are we to say that somebody like Oscar Wilde when he’s revived now, I’m thinking not just of the plays now but when they were done then, but when they’re revived now, are we discounting an Oscar Wilde play? Are we saying an Oscar Wilde play cannot, by definition, be a political play?

DC: Well, going back to Lisa’s idea that there is a revival, possibly in 2003, I suppose in order for there to be an idea of a revival, there also has to be the idea that things have in some way, waned. The term ‘political theatre’ itself was coined by the Marxist German director Erwin Piscator back in 1929, and in this country I’d suggest that it’s quite often identified with a whole space of performance which began in the 1950s and throughout the 1960s and 1970s and arguably the 1980s as well, fermented at the Royal Court but not exclusively delivered there. What’s your take on that, Carole? When you are looking for a body of work in British theatre which you would define as political, where do you begin?

CW: I started doing my intense theatre-going in the 1980s, and my recollection, my feeling is that the 1980s were intensely political, on every conceivable front that you can think of. In terms of what Lisa’s been talking about, in terms of access, in terms of spaces where theatre was played, in terms of access, in terms of democracy as to how theatre companies were put together, if you think of all those women’s companies, in terms of the gay theatre: it was very much a question of how those plays got up on the stage as well as what the plays were saying once they were on the stage. So some of the things that Lisa’s talking about, and she perceives as happening now, my gut feeling is that actually this was happening very intensively throughout the 1980s. Aleks I know feels, will talk strongly about the 1990s, but from my perspective the 1980s were intensely political from exactly what you are talking about, although I’m not entirely clear about what Lisa means when she says ‘public theatre’.

DC: Lisa, do you think there is an identifiable strand of theatre called, which one could call, political theatre that emerges in the post-war British landscape? You know, 1956 is often quoted as a, kind of, start date for a particular kind of realist theatre and that is often, in turn, identified as political theatre.

LG: It was realist theatre, and I agree it was political theatre, but I don’t think it was public theatre. I think if you want public theatre you need to look more to the tradition of Joan Littlewood and then going back. You [DC] started talking about Piscator and really that’s the tradition that she was following, and in a way, in fact, you need to go back to the 1930s and the way that that moved into a theatre of action, moved into the first touring circuits, the first — you know, taking theatre to the people which Ewan MacColl was responsible for and how that moved into Stratford East and, you know, they were heavily influenced by Brecht and obviously by Laban, by Commedia dell’Arte traditions, so by song, by popular theatre traditions as Brecht had been before.

I just wanted to pick up when Carole talks about the 1980s and that being a sort of, ferment of public theatre. You see I think, I mean, in some ways that’s true of the 1970s, much more true of the 1970s, the early 1970s, and in the 1980s I think what we had was a theatre of identity. And that’s when I started going to the theatre as well, and really getting into political theatre. But actually, because of what had happened in society by that point — I suppose the sort of, progressive political movements of the 1970s and, kind of, the street action that after the election of Thatcher that that kind of, that shifted and theatre reflected that. But theatre kind of lagged behind and this is where I think that whole preaching to the converted, you know, attack on theatre comes in because I think in a way it came out of that period when theatre was moving forward ideologically but it was no longer moving with society — society was moving somewhere else and I think you had that kind of shift. So I think yes, the theatre of the 1980s was strongly ideological, identity politics, but that identity politics itself was an example of a fracturing of a collective movement that had kind of, I suppose inspired the theatre movements of the 1970s which I think were more public in the sense of the early kind of Portable Theatre experiments — the kind of actually going out and taking theatre to workplaces, taking theatre to the streets that happened in the 1970s.

I think in the 1980s that tended to, or certainly in my experience of it was that it tended to become moved into the black box spaces which was more about consciousness-raising than the 1970s which I think was more about theatre being aligned with a wider social movement so that, you know, the hot breath of that social movement was kind of behind the practitioners. I think you have to actually understand the social context, the reason why I’m talking about public theatre now and talking about theatre in that way is because of the political context that we’re living through at the moment. It would’ve been impossible in the early 1990s, and I know this because I was running a street theatre company and I used to go into job centres and get up and do plays or whatever, or on the street, or on picket lines. And it was extremely difficult because of the conditions that we were in, and nobody wanted to hear about progressive ideas, certainly nobody wanted to hear, you know, about the word ‘socialism’. Come back to that. And in the end, it ended up being me and Tam Dean Burn and nobody, we couldn’t get anybody to join us! That was — so I suppose in terms of my own history as a practitioner I understand that context is defining and I think that unless you approach it in that way, then it doesn’t make any sense.

DC: Aleks Sierz, when looking at the beginning of 1990s, particularly with relation to the explosion in the mid-1990s, what do you see as being, where do you see as being the ground for political theatre as being at that time?

AS: First I’d like to give a slight context to all that. We were talking a bit about the past and I wanted to take a sort of, new writing perspective on it, and I think from conversations with a playwright, like say David Edgar, you do get that kind of perspective. He saw, for example, 1956 Look Back in Anger and all those plays by Arnold Wesker, for example, you know, campaigning plays in a way, as part of a conversation of a whole generation about the welfare state. OK, so you had a lot of people who had come through the educational reforms and so on, and of the 1940s, and they all had something to discuss publicly about where Britain was going and what was wrong with Britain. And then in the late 1960s you have the 1968 effect, where the idea of revolution becomes much more on the agenda. And that not only explodes, what Lisa was saying, this idea that you have stable theatres and set spaces, the abolition of censorship means that you can have improvised theatre, you have hundreds of little theatre companies which have the word ‘red’ or ‘joint’ in their titles you know, sort of either doing sort of pantomime or agit-prop where all the capitalists wore tall black hats and the workers were hail and hearty and comical and you know, that’s at its worst. At its best you have somebody like John McGrath whose plays are now classics with this beautiful mixture of very popular form with quite radical and informative content. By about the mid-1970s a lot of that begins to peter out and it’s actually taken over by different strands, I mean we call them minorities or something, but let’s call them, sort of, voices from the margins. So it could be women find a voice — Caryl Churchill’s early plays right at the beginning of the 1970s — and that blossoms completely in the 1980s. What happens is that you have lots more black theatre groups, you have gay theatre groups and so on and that’s sort of contributing to that kind of momentum. And I think that’s quite lively in the 1980s. By the 1990s actually, those kind of themes have in some ways narrowed, and if you wanted one theme that characterises 1990s writing, it’s basically the crisis of masculinity, and that’s expressed through a whole series of lad’s plays. And why young people in the 1990s abandoned some forms of explicit political theatre, partly it was because they didn’t want to be seen as old fashioned and lecturing people, it was partly because there was a genuine crisis of ideology in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the fact that for thirty years after 1968 all the attempts at radical change by extra-parliamentary groups had failed. Also I suppose they wanted more to entertain and to slip in subversively whatever ideas that they had about politics and society while actually making people laugh and have a good time.

DC: Goodness me, that’s a great resume. It’s really —

LG: I just wanted to come back on the last point that you [AS] were saying about where the writers were coming from and I think perhaps you were projecting onto them your own consciousness rather than their consciousness, just knowing many of those writers I suppose.

AS: Quite possibly.

LG: And I suppose for me, those plays to me reflect a kind of alienation that’s going on in society which I suppose reflects a kind of Thatcherist notion that there is “No such thing as society” and in a sense that’s what I would see coming through those plays. I know what you’re saying about a “crisis of masculinity” but I don’t think that’s the defining feature of those plays. I think that’s the defining feature of a few of them.

CW: I would just like to ask Lisa if she could just explain, why you think Lisa, why you think this kind of renaissance of what you call “public theatre” is now. It’s not something I’ve noticed.

LG: Perhaps my foreword was slightly optimistic. But I suppose what I do see changing at the moment and because I see it reflecting what’s going on in society as a whole and the fact that, as Dominic was reading out my foreword, you know, the fact that we have had these huge protests against the war in Iraq, and we have had — that there is a — I suppose what I would see is that there’s a democratic deficit in society at the moment and I think we probably all agree with that. And I suppose that, at its best or at its most interesting or at its most cutting-edge, I think theatre is somehow attempting to negotiate that.

DC: What is it about now, as opposed to five years ago, that you see as having happened, that has enabled a perhaps more frank or more explicit debate to take place about these questions? About, you know, how we should be governed, how we should live? At the start of 1997 it was assumed that, whatever its faults, the arrival of the New Labour government it meant that certain ideologies were sort of, laid to rest in effect. This was the start of a new chapter in British politics.

LG: Well obviously I never shared that perspective I mean, that was — I was sort of waiting for the playwrights to catch up. In a way, that perspective that the Labour government wasn’t going to be any different really — I mean, it was going to be different to the Tories and I think it has got a very different agenda but actually it’s no more progressive and it never was and it never said it would be.

CW: It would be a perfect time for theatre in this country, in the four corners of the United Kingdom to be grappling with this, and to be charging into this void, because if democracy has suffered: it clearly has suffered, not just in theatre but throughout the land. If theatre means anything and if it’s going to build on anything it did in the 1970s and 1980s it would be lovely to think that there was a new generation of performers and practitioners and writers who wanted to jump into this void. I don’t see that happening. You know, please tell me that I’m wrong because I would love to think that there is a new generation who feel so strongly about this and in the 1970s, maybe the 1960s, there would have been lots of small groups, you know —

LG: There are lots of small groups. Now I don’t think they’re perhaps, well, I think the difference between now and then is what you don’t have — and you [CW] talk about a kind of a void or a vacuum and I think that’s absolutely right. What you don’t have is the organised opposition to the Labour government, what you have is a protest movement. You don’t yet have a kind of movement for change, and I think that’s the difference between the work of now and the 1970s and I think that’s reflected in the work in many of these small companies. I mean, there are companies I know who are going into, you know, detention centres, companies that are, you know, working with all sorts of groups and all sorts of ways, in all sorts of different participatory forms and experimenting with popular forms. On the Artists Against the War site I know there are people getting together, doing a bit of street theatre here with this protest, that protest. I mean, yes sure, it’s fragmented, but if you look at it as a whole I do think that there is more of a — there’s more grass roots activism going on but it is taking the form of protest. I mean, there are more people involved in revolutionary politics now in an active way than there ever were in the early19 70s and I think that’s very important to remember as well.

DC: Well can I, in that case can I bring in Aleks Sierz because it seems to me that what you’ve said implies that suddenly an activist streak has arrived in British theatre and my understanding of in-yer-face theatre, to use Aleks’ phrase to describe that mid-1990s phenomenon, was in a sense characterised by an unwillingness to present answers. It was a very questioning, confused and unhappy in a sense, depiction of modern life. You’re sort of suggesting that we’re suddenly at a point, perhaps, presumably because of protests on the street about Iraq where theatre has kind of co-opted by some of that or been kind of imbued by some of that activism. Is that a fair statement?

LG: Yeah, I think a little bit, I mean I don’t want to overstate it: that would be very foolish of me, but I probably have overstated it already. But I do think that there’s a movement there and I do think that there are a lot of young companies coming up who are interested in engaging in political, participatory, public theatre.

AS: I think it’s always risky to try and predict the future and the minute you sit back and say, “Oh well, nothing’s really happening”, that’s when you’ll pick up the newspaper the next day and find that something is happening. I mean, my only real hunch about theatre is that the next new exciting and big thing will come at us from outside what we’re used to. In other words, it probably won’t be the Royal Court. It probably won’t be the National Theatre. It might not even be the pub theatres that we’re familiar with. It might not even be agit-prop, it might just come from left-field. A bit like punk rock did in the late 1970s. Nobody expected people to do it themselves outside of the big record companies, and people did.

DC: Lisa Goldman, Carole Woddis and Aleks Sierz, thank you very much.