Natasha Tripney, editor and critic for such publications as The Guardian, The Stage and Exeunt Magazine writes for the Mobius blog about theatre's responsibility to provoke cultural debate and inspire controversy
It’s not overstating things to say the democratic fabric of the UK is under threat. Boris Johnson’s government has been slowly eroding things for a while and the pandemic has only accelerated this process. There is a long history of performance as activism and theatre as protest from the guerrilla street theatre in the 1960s US to Belarus Free Theatre’s campaigning, risk-taking work in their home country and the UK. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring the topic of theatre as a tool of protest, in the UK and Europe, and the relationship between art and activism.
A recent Guardian review of Mark Thomas’ new show Seriously Annoying, about the ramifications of the government’s new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill, described the comedian and activist as a “professional public nuisance.”
Thomas has spent much of his career annoying someone or other, infiltrating arms fairs and committing minor acts of dissent, and turning it into performance. I suspect he would get on well with the three Slovenian contemporary artists who, in 2007, officially changed their name to Janez Janša, the name of the Slovenian right-wing politician, now the country’s prime minister, and ran for office during the Slovenia national elections. Or the Croatian director Oliver Frljic whose Catholic church-baiting show The Curse pissed off the Polish Minister of Culture so much that funding for the festival he was due to guest-curate was revoked.The festival directors crowd-funded to make up the shortfall and Frljic duly repurposed an existing production to include a literal fuck-you to the Polish Minister of Culture.
Over the past 18 months, there’s been a lot of focus on theatre’s vital role in communities. When you live in a country governed by people for whom the concept of care is alien, having spaces that place care at their core is deeply appealing, and this kind of grassroots work is necessary and valuable, but I also believe that theatre has the ability – and arguably a responsibility – to make a nuisance of itself.
Since its beginnings theatre has been used as an arena for satire, as a space to expose the moral shortcomings, hypocrisies and outright abuses of those in power, using ridicule as a way of keeping organisations and governments on their toes – a way of saying “I see you.” Shakespeare loved to highlight the inadequacies of those in authority. Pantomime was in part born out of a desire to smuggle topical commentary onto the stage in a form that evaded the censors. But these days work in the UK that provokes and disrupts seems in surprisingly short supply. It’s not that there’s a lack of politically engaged work, but there’s a distinct lack of antic energy, irreverence and outright disobedience - the kind of stuff that pisses off ministers.
There are exceptions. Alan Lane and Slung Low when not turning their venue into a food distribution centre during lockdown, make work that forces you to look at your surroundings afresh. 2015’s Camelot: The Shining City, made in collaboration with Sheffield People’s Theatre, was a case in point. It spilled out of the theatre into the city and featured a cast of 180. There were explosions and choirs. It felt revolutionary. Art flooding the streets with a flamethrower on its shoulder.
When I interviewed Lane not long afterwards, he said something that stayed with me: “As an industry, we’ve been cleansed, we’ve been tidied up.” It can sometimes feel like a lot of work being made in the UK errs on the side of politeness. It’s didactic rather than galvanising, too intent on climbing the tree to risk shaking it.
Then there’s work like Chris Thorpe and Lucy Ellinson’s TORYCORE which turned George Osborne’s austerity rhetoric into a death-metal bellow and brought the audience to tears of fury in the process. Sh!t Theatre’s Letters to Windsor House, which used the unopened mail of past tenants of their shared flat to highlight the destabilising reality of living in rented accommodation. Or In Bed with My Brother’s Tricky Second Album which took the moment in the early 1990s when the KLF burned a million pounds on a Scottish island as inspiration for a show which Exeunt’s Alice Saville described as a “furiously political ‘fuck you’ to an oppressively polite, neo-liberal theatre culture, and the tight limits it puts on how emerging artists should act and be.” Or the silence that sits at the heart of Yasmin Joseph’s glorious salute to the Notting Hill Carnival’s history and evolution, J’Ouvert, an enforced pause to reflect on decades of black pain on a West End stage. Nuisance-making does not have to be noisy.
It’s obviously far easier to make big disruptive gestures when you have the backing of a comfortably subsidised German theatre. The UK’s own arts funding machinery – not to mention the government’s staggering contempt for the arts – makes any kind of shit-kicking difficult. It’s sometimes easier to bite tongues and make compromise than risk tanking your career. The way the UK media for the most part regards theatre, with a mixture of mockery and distrust, doesn't help either.
But it feels like we’re at a place where both vigilance and action are required. The right to protest is under threat. We have a Department for Culture, Media and Sport that demands displays of gratitude for receiving money from the Cultural Recovery Fund, an insidious government edict to create more ‘distinctly British’ television, and Nadine sodding Dorries as Minister for Culture.
If you have even a passing experience of countries of a more authoritarian bent, you know how slippery this stuff is, how swiftly the rot spreads. Theatre can help can salt the earth and keep the slugs at bay. It can open eyes and fire minds. It can shift people’s thinking by degrees. It can bite its thumb and bare its arse. It can be a formidable irritant. It’s time to kick up a stink.