Entertainment & Arts

Can pre-election theatre offer a fresh view of politics?

Clockwise from top left: The Absence of War, The Vote, Until They Kick Us Out, Feed the Beast, A New Play For The General Election Image copyright See notes
Image caption Clockwise from top left: The Absence of War, The Vote, Until They Kick Us Out, Feed the Beast, A New Play For The General Election

In the run-up to the general election, you can see a play set in a polling station, plays about democracy and even a play that sets the Budget speech to a death metal soundtrack. But can the theatre offer us a fresh view of politics, and even influence our vote?

With its cycle of stage-managed appearances by well-rehearsed politicians who are keenly sticking to their script, you could say the election campaign is already pure theatre.

So is there room left for the kind of political drama that you watch at an actual theatre, and which is plotted by playwrights rather than spin doctors?

The answer seems to be yes, judging by the number of political plays that are being staged across the UK as the election looms.

Perhaps the highly choreographed nature of the real campaign and the media coverage has led to an appetite for stories that get beneath the surface of how our country is run.

In the next few weeks, you can see plays examining the state of the left wing, plays questioning the relationship between politics and the press, plays about issues like the NHS and plays looking at the health of democracy.

James Graham, one of Britain's leading political playwrights, is looking at what "voting means, why it matters and examining the way we do it" with The Vote at London's Donmar Warehouse.

Set in the last 90 minutes of voting on election day, the cast of 50 includes Mark Gatiss, Catherine Tate and Dame Judi Dench. On election night itself, it will also be broadcast live in real time on More4.

Image copyright Darren Bell
Image caption Spitting Image's Steve Nallon plays Margaret Thatcher in Dead Sheep

Elsewhere, there are shows that rage at the last government, with George Osborne coming in for a particular bashing. He is kidnapped by fictional disgruntled citizens in one, and has his Budget speech set to a death metal soundtrack in another.

A dramatisation of Margaret Thatcher's dealings with her foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe will be more palatable to Conservative supporters, while another drama tells the story of "a bumbling, charismatic Tory MP and former London Mayor" with a "comic and colourful past" who wants to be prime minister. Ring any bells?

"Theatre has always been political," according to Matthew Linley, artistic director of Liverpool's Unity Theatre, which is staging a five-day festival under the title U-Decide.

"I'm seeing a real energy and drive, which I suspect is coming from either a sense of anger or a sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo."

The U-Decide line-up ranges from musical satire (Rock the Vote) to an intense one-man show about extremism (Confirmation).

Image copyright Paul Blakemore
Image caption Lucy Ellinson recites the last Budget speech accompanied by a 'doom metal' band in Torycore

Torycore, the death metal version of the Budget performed by Chris Thorpe, Lucy Ellinson and Steve Lawson, takes the most overtly political position.

Despite that, Linley insists that, overall, U-Decide is not trying to influence how audience members vote.

"It's about challenging - challenging ideas, challenging assumptions, challenging the system. And those kinds of questions are not necessarily left-leaning or right-leaning."

As the differences between real-world political parties have blurred and old-fashioned tribalism has worn away in recent years, so political theatre has largely evolved from the tub-thumping agit-prop of yore.

Image copyright Tristram Kenton
Image caption The script for Who Cares at the Royal Court was compiled from interviews with NHS workers

"I don't think we're party political so much any more," says Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of the Royal Court in London.

The Royal Court is currently staging Who Cares, a verbatim play about the state of the NHS, which comes after a season of plays at the venue along the theme of revolution.

"Something really interesting happened about a year ago, when the plays that were coming in all were dealing with some kind of malaise about the status quo," Featherstone explains.

"Some were more overtly political, but they were all saying, 'We feel apathetic, we feel angry, but we don't know what to do about it. Does our vote make a difference?'

"So a lot of the plays we've had on over the last six or seven months have examined that."

While directors and playwrights may not be deliberately trying to influence how an audience member votes, a number are looking at the state of the left.

Image copyright Live Theatre
Image caption At Newcastle's Live Theatre, an ex-Labour minister has to face up to his party's past

Jonathan Maitland, whose play Dead Sheep dramatised the Thatcher-Howe relationship, recently wrote a column for The Daily Telegraph with the headline: "Po-faced Left-wing plays are making theatre predictable and boring."

"Most playwrights are left-leaning aren't they?" says Torben Betts, whose latest play What Falls Apart at Newcastle's Live Theatre explores the clash between left-wing politics and the right-wing press - and the shortcomings of both.

He explains: "It's hopefully not just [saying] 'that is good, that is bad', 'this is right, this is wrong.' It's more open to ambiguity and you can look at things from different angles. Otherwise you'd write an article."

The Labour Party's internal ideological tussles are also laid bare in a new production of David Hare's 1993 drama The Absence of War.

Image copyright Ryoko Uyama
Image caption Early Days (of a Better Nation) puts the audience in control of a fictional nation

The play has been touring the UK since February but Hare recently bemoaned the fact that there was no appetite for a full revival in the capital.

"I had been talking to some lily-livered artistic directors, pointing out that The Absence of War was screaming to be revived," he said.

"But London theatre has become de-politicised and I've been dismayed by the lack of political vitality in it."

The Royal Court's Vicky Featherstone disagrees: "I think the artistic directors in London are less lily-livered than they were a few years ago," she says, pointing to bold work at The Tricycle, National, Donmar, Almeida, Yard and Battersea Arts Centre.

Start from scratch

As well as plays dealing directly with modern politics, a few innovative shows aim to question the workings of democracy itself.

Audience members get to decide how they would run the country if they were starting from scratch in Early Days (of a Better Nation), while five "candidates" compete live for votes in Fight Night.

Few performers, however, have taken things as far as one member of Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse's youth theatre.

Image copyright Brian Roberts
Image caption The Liverpool Everyman's youth theatre make their voices heard in Until They Kick Us Out

The award-winning Young Everyman and Playhouse has created Until They Kick Us Out, a show in which they let out their frustration at the modern political system.

They were so inspired by the process that they decided to select one of the 35 cast members to stand for parliament for real.

And so, 18-year-old Niamh McCarthy is standing as an independent in Liverpool Wavertree, with a manifesto including an overhaul of the education system and no university tuition fees. (Further details of the other candidates can be found here.)

"What the play provided for the cast was literally a platform to stand up and say to the audience, which was mostly middle-aged viewers, 'Listen, we are young people, we do care, these are the things we care about,'" McCarthy says.

"Just listen to what we have to say for once."

The pick of pre-election political theatre

  • A New Play For the General Election. George Osborne is kidnapped by four disgruntled citizens in a play that weaves in elements from the real election campaign. Finborough Theatre, London, 26 April-12 May.
  • The Absence of War. David Hare's 1993 play about a doomed Labour leader, written a year after Neil Kinnock's election defeat. On tour in Kingston, Cambridge and Bath until 9 May.
  • The Big Democracy Project. The National Theatre of Wales is in the middle of a three-year project about democracy, with regional debates leading to a major work to be staged in 2017.
  • The Candidate. An interactive show, in which the audience decides on the policies for one candidate. Theatre Delicatessen, London, 29 April-16 May.
  • Dead Sheep. Revisiting the relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe. Park Theatre, London, until 9 May.
  • Early Days (of a Better Nation). The audience gets to grips with democracy as it tries to rebuild the nation after a civil war. On tour in London, Glasgow, Belfast, Eastleigh, Liverpool and Coventry from 21 April-14 May.
  • Feed the Beast. Inspired by the Leveson Inquiry, this follows an idealistic new prime minister's battles with the press. By Doctor Who and Sherlock writer Steve Thompson. Birmingham Rep, until 2 May.
  • Fight Night. An unsettling interactive drama that unpicks what determines who we vote for and why. Unicorn Theatre, London, to 3 May.
  • Kingmaker. "The story of a fictional yet strangely familiar political figure whose bumbling bonhomie disguises a fierce determination and a heart of steel." Arts Theatre, London, 4-23 May.
  • The State We're In. Beatboxing about zero-hours contracts, an alternative election debate and a state-of-the-nation investigation take place in a mini-festival. Camden Peoples' Theatre, London, 22 April-9 May.
  • Taking A Stand. A season of "politically-engaged" shows from the likes of comedian Mark Thomas, docu-dramatist Chris Goode and Palestinian theatre company The Freedom Theatre. Battersea Arts Centre, London, until 23 May.
  • Tony's Last Tape. Late Labour politician Tony Benn's diaries on stage. Bridge House, London, 27 April-17 May.
  • U-Decide. Five-day festival of political theatre including Early Days (of a Better Nation), Torycore, Rock the Vote and Confirmation. Unity Theatre, Liverpool, 5-9 May.
  • Until They Kick Us Out. Members of Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse's youth theatre make their voices heard. Liverpool Everyman, 28-30 April.
  • The Vote. Events in a fictional polling station on election day. Donmar Warehouse, London, 24 April-7 May. On More4 on 7 May.
  • What Falls Apart. A former Labour minister faces an underhand press and the fallout from the Iraq war. Live Theatre, Newcastle, 22 April-16 May.
  • Who Cares. The words of doctors, nurses, patients and policy-makers are used in this verbatim play about the NHS. Royal Court, London, until 16 May.

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