What Theatre Owes Real-Life Politics


Headshot of Emma, a white women with auburn hair wearing glasses and a white shirt

In the final article in her guest editor series, Emma Burnell examines the relationship between theatre and real-life politics, speaking to industry figures such as James Graham, and a number of other critics and playwrights. 

Emma Burnell is a Journalist, Political Consultant and Playwright. Her first play, No Cure for Love can be seen here.

“A playwright has to have a really good story. The politics should fit around it… I don’t want ever to feel like I am being hammered around the head with a message.”

These are the words of culture politics journalist Nicole Lambert and they have stuck with me as I have thought about this series of blogs exploring the ways in which politics and the performing arts interact – be that through comedy, a particular playwright or in its effect on an audience. There is so much scope for persuasion and even activation through theatre - but where does that leave the people who are seeing themselves depicted on stage?

In this final installment of this series, I spoke to a number of critics and playwrights about the depiction of real people on stage. The politicians who have truly shaped our world have enormous dramatic potential for a writer. However, there are also obvious pitfalls when you come into contact with reality. For one thing, these are people whose words – publicly at least – have already been carefully chosen and crafted. They are known and frequently quoted. So we have a sense not just of how they think but how they communicate. That can be a blessing and a curse for a playwright.

As Kate Maltby – another who writes about politics but is also deeply immersed in the theatre world as chair of the Critics Circle – says, “It’s the perfect theatrical landscape for looking beyond the mask. It’s the absolute classic of a public projection and then a gap behind which there’s a human being.”

It is in this gap that the drama can lie. Take Clement Attlee for example. He is, more than any other politician, responsible for the post-war settlement that came to define the following decades until it was largely dismantled by Thatcher. Such a titan of politics should be seen as a ripe candidate for dramatisation, but he has actually rarely been seen as the central figure in a drama until playwright Francis Beckett wrote A Modest Little Man. “With Attlee it was more interesting because he is a superficially uninteresting person. Somebody that everybody else finds boring, but I don’t think he’s a bit boring.” Beckett took a man who was famously diffident and examined why and how that had an effect on his politics.

Attlee was considered boring, but to make the changes he did, he must have had a core of steel; “He matters because of what he did. But what I was writing about was the character who did it. I wanted to talk about the creation of the welfare state, but the play is not about [that]. The play is about the person who was at the heart of its creation” says Beckett. And it is often this tension between the public persona and the politics that is where the drama is to be found – more or less successfully.

Maltby argues that this doesn’t always work when the subject is not one that is likely to be popular with a largely liberal left-leaning audience. For example, she feels that Handbagged was “cruel”.

“It was written up by many critics of the left as humanising Margaret Thatcher for them and I thought gosh, if this is humanising for you, you must have been living with an evil caricature. Because to me, it still looked pretty schlocky.”

This can be a problem when people are encountering characters who exist in real life. And this is most evident in immersive theatre, where you don’t simply see them depicted, but interact with them.

Tom Black, Writer of hit Immersive show Crisis, What Crisis deals with this by having fictional advisors in the room, but the ability to talk to real figures from the period (the show compacts the winter of discontent into one politically tense evening) on the telephone. He says, “We’re used to seeing [actors] portray real people. But the moment you can directly interact with them… unless you get into lookalike territory (and that itself can be a bit naff) you end with people saying ‘ah, OK, I’m not really meeting this person.’” He finds the telephone device – along with a scrupulously researched dossier for the actors on the other end of the line – keeps participants grounded in the action.

Of course, while researching how politics and politicians are depicted in real life, there was one name that came up again and again – James Graham, the writer of This House, Brexit: The Uncivil War and, most recently, Best of Enemies. I was delighted to speak to James about how it felt to depict real people – especially those still alive and liable to turn up to a show.

“I feel a personal responsibility to not be a dick about it. You don’t need to turn these people into villains for your own political agenda. You just have to tell the story quite honestly. I even find it more exciting to try and find a level of understanding of a traditionally unsympathetic character, which is a valuable moral and social exercise.”

Graham describes himself as “unashamedly a narrative playwright” and it is in this telling of stories that he finds the humanity in subjects as diverse – and divisive – as Dominic Cummings, Rupert Murdoch, Gore Vidal and 1970s Whips Bob Mellish and Jack Wetherill.

“The best way to make a point is to tell a story. If I have a point to make about the press or democracy or even something like the human condition – why we do what we do to one another, why we love each other, why we hate each other – for me playing out a scenario, of people having wants and objectives and achieving or not achieving them is how you communicate to an audience what that point is.”

It is in this ability of stories to illuminate our world that theatre shines. In examining politics through the three-dimensional examples of real people and scenarios, playwrights and theatre-makers of all stripes help us to work through the world in which politicians inhabit and the impact they have on all of us.

It has been a pleasure and a privilege to examine this world for Mobius. And in doing so it has greatly helped shape my own play Triggered, which can be seen later this year. I think understanding the human element of politics is more important than ever as we increasingly retreat into our own bubbles. I hope that is what I and those I have commissioned have done to some extent throughout this series.

Emma Burnell is a playwright and director as well as a political journalist and campaign consultant. Triggered is on at the Lion and Unicorn in Kentish Town from 20-22 June.

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