Gordon Parsons

Gordon Parsons

Gordon Parsons is an arts reviewer for the Morning Star.

Mark Antony's speech at Caesar's funeral
Tuesday, 07 June 2016 21:02

Theatre and Politics: Book Review

Published in Theatre

Gordon Parsons reviews Joe Kelleher's book on theatre and politics.

W. H. Auden’s insisted that all his poetry put together had not saved a single Jew, and claimed that poetry makes nothing happen. This was certainly not a view shared by Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War who seized the opportunity to execute the country’s greatest poet, Frederico Garcia Lorca. Nor was it shared by Pinochet’s Chilean fascist thugs, who crushed the hands of poet, singer-guitarist and theatre director, Victor Jara before butchering him.

However, the question arises how can or does any work of art affect the power structures within society?

Joe Kelleher’s short book is one in a series written by leading theatre scholars, exploring connections between theatre and multiple aspects of the wider world, asking how the theatre might illuminate the world and how the world might illuminate the theatre.

Kelleher here engages with the complexities of what happens politically in the theatrical experience in a sterling and intellectually demanding effort to engage with the human chemistry at play in theatrical events. Theatre, after all, which objectively can be described as people performing “various harmless and inconsequential actions: a bit of wandering around, some waving of the arms, some standing up and sitting down, and playing it all up as they do so, often getting remarkably excited”.

How can such simplistic experiences have political relevance?

Kelleher, insisting that his book is about theatre and politics rather than political theatre, necessarily starts with a definition of politics as “the important, inescapable and difficult attempt to determine relations of power in a given space”. Here the space is that of the theatre stage and the imagined space of the outside world to which the theatre relates. As all theatre must relate to something that its audiences can recognise, even if they fail to understand the implications, then all theatre in a general way can be discussed “in terms of its own political dimensions”.

The immediacy, the ‘nowness’, of theatre, its ”liveness and sociality”, and its gathering of ‘strangers’ around issues of disagreement or common concern make it essentially political. It also has the potential to propose “alternative realities to how things are at present”. Unlike Auden, Kellerher hopes that if all the qualities of the theatrical presentation, “the commitment that goes into the work, the realism of the representation and the canniness of the staging and the associations it establishes with people, times and ideas” are “tuned right” then theatre can make a difference to what is going on in the outside world.

He does, however, engage with the argument that the fixedness of theatre, by which I assume he means that the play or performance happens now and in front of its specific audience, obstructs politics which is figured as “a continuous process that eludes representation”.

This appears to be a limited view of politics which contextually must include past present and future. Depending on the ‘tuning’, we can surely recognise the universal nature of power politics in (for example) Shakespeare’s history cycles and relate this recognition to the machinations of our present political scene. While Edward Bond’s Lear intentionally links past, present and future in its political Import. The question is, of course, what do we do with this recognition?

Intriguingly Kelleher wonders whether the very “fragility” of theatre its “tendency to cast a mask over its own face”, never mind its ”inability to stop the police as they march forward”, carries its greatest political potential.. He uses Mark Antony’s Forum speech, suggesting its very manipulative theatricality, whereby we, the audience in the theatre, understanding how the stage audience are being worked upon, recognise how in the outside political scene we are the stage audience similarly exploited rhetorically by our politicians.

He doesn’t ignore the essential entertainment aspect of theatre – the good night out syndrome - but maintains that theatre is the place “where work and enjoyment are dependant one on another”. John McGrath and his defunct 7:84 company with shows like The Cheviot, the stag, and the black, black oil come to mind. In his investigation of what political effect a play can have on an audience, Kelleher notes that a particularly powerful production can “leave a mark on the consciousness … that can stay with people for a lifetime”. Nevertheless it “does not touch us in the same way that a real life tragedy can touch us”.

This brings us to Brecht, who recognised and distrusted the powers of emotion in the theatre. Through his much mauled verfremdungeffect, or mistranslated ‘alienation’ technique, Brecht aimed to encourage his audiences to appreciate the dramatic situation intellectually and in understanding rather than simply reacting emotionally to the dramatic images of their world outside the theatre, go out and change it.

Kelleher, however, following the Austrian playwright Peter Handke, rejects any political influence of Brecht who “never unsettled anyone who was settled, but he did give countless people a few lovely hours”.

At essence Kelleher knows that the effects of theatre are unpredictable, residing as they do in whatever the spectators make of it. Questioning “whether such a basically playful and un-dangerous medium as the theatre could ever justly be compared to the sort of “real work involved in…politics”, fails to recognise that whereas the cosy world of British theatre may well be ‘un-dangerous’, there have been many examples in less comfortable environments where theatre has been a precarious activity for all involved. One thinks for example of Barney Simon’s Johannesburg Market Theatre productions of Athol Fugard’s plays during the apartheid years .

An area that Kelleher does not engage with is the particular make-up of theatre audiences . In the not too distant past there was a definite class base to theatre-goers. This has changed since the heady days of touring fringe theatre. Still, however, education and social class play a part in cinema/theatre choices. Theatre ticket prices compared with cinema seats makes for a specific type-identity to theatre audiences who, outside London and one or two major cities, are essentially older and more ’conventional’ than cinema audiences. They may well bring a set of expectations that are different from cinema audiences. It is arguable that these expectations might be more open to the political potential of ‘live’ performance with all its unpredicatability, compared with the influence of the technically ‘controlled’ filmic experiences.

It is impossible in this pithy analysis of theatre and politics to do more than raise significant questions. It may be that there are no definitive answers and Kelleher’s recognition that capitalism can always co-opt, make room for, and “fatten itself” on the most ’transgressive’ or ‘subversive ‘ art forms that seem to threaten it.

Theatre and Politics by Joe Kelleher is published by Palgrave at £6.99.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015 10:37

Theatre round-up 2015

Published in Theatre

My landmark productions for the year must start with Tom Morton Smith’s Oppenheimer, the tragedy of the scientific genius who as the “father of the atom bomb” realised that “now I am become death” and changed our world. Angus Jackson’s innovative production in Stratford’s Swan Theatre had all the power of the RSC’s house dramatist’s great tragedies, with John Hefferman’s memorably tortured portrayal of a man, trapped in the cross-currents of history, who’s driven to create his own Frankenstein monster.

Death of a Salesman, the company’s commemoration of the centenary of the birth of Arthur Miller, was as starkly relevant today as in its 1949 opening. Its message — “the only thing you’ve got in the world is what you can sell”— captures the essence of a system which at the same time deludes and destroys its universal victims. At the centre of Gregory Doran’s painful and superb production was a towering performance from Antony Sher as Willy Loman, a gravelly voiced walrus hiding from his fears and recognition of business and family failure behind a carapace of words.

Equally powerful in its exposé of a dehumanising world was the London Old Vic’s bold revival of a 1922 work by another master of US drama, The Hairy Ape. Eugene O’Neill’s expressionist portrayal of the alienation of modern man trapped in the industrial machine of modern capitalism left the audience exhausted but strangely elated by Bertie Carvel’s explosive Yank, whose pride in his own brutal energy as the dominant stoker on a cruise liner blinds him from understanding his role as no more than a disposable cog in that machine. Credit for this production of O’Neill’s “comedy of ancient and modern life” was shared by director Richard Jones and his choreographer, Alette Collins.

From Complicite Theatre at the Edinburgh Festival came Simon McBurney’s amazing The Encounter. In his one-man theatre treatment of an epic journey into the unknown, the audience was taken into a polyphonic world of shifting reality in which McBurney recounted and performed the experiences of the National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre.

In 1969 he found himself lost in the Amazon with a primitive tribe seeking the “beginning,” which he realises is death. As he finds an uncanny ability to communicate subliminally with the headman the audience — equipped with multiple-messaging headphones — were led to question many of the basic individualistic assumptions of Western culture.

Immediately before the disastrous general election, Bristol Old Vic’s well-worked revival of David Hare’s The Absence of War, based on Neil Kinnock’s 1992 election defeat, captured all the wheelings and dealings within a Labour Party machine struggling to present a plausible alternative to the Tories while futilely trying to manage the ubiquitous right-wing media. At least Jeremy Corbyn offers more hope than Hare’s despondent leader, whose answer to defeat is “Let’s all join the Tory Party. And then let’s all fuck it up.”

Trevor Nunn’s updating of Ben Jonson’s Jacobean comedy Volpone at the RSC’s Swan Theatre featured Henry Goodman’s tour-de-force portrayal of the dying magnifico, gulling his avaricious neighbours into believing themselves his lone beneficiary.

Master of disguise, he easily transforms into an opera-singing snake-oil salesman in order to seduce the wife of one of his willing victims. Nunn uses Ranjit Bolt’s free-wheeling adaptation of the script to go for the jugular in a production which left the audience with uncomfortable recognition of our present day, even while they laughed.

Finally, Welsh National Opera’s delightful production of Stephen Sondheim’s opera-cum-musical Sweeney Todd again revealed how theatre can make us think about our state of affairs. None more so than when the demon barber preparing the fillings for those tasty pies poses the question: “It’s man devouring man out there. So who are we to deny it in here?”

This article first appeared in the Morning Star.