As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present a short film about why theatre matters, by Ed Edwards.
Why Theatre Matters
by Ed Edwards
Like every sector of society over the 30 years since the disastrous rise of Thatcherism and the economic devastation it has brought to Britain, culture has taken a big hit. Ideas that years ago seemed insanely right wing are now considered normal, such as cutting social security to the point where tens of thousands are losing their shelter and people with serious diseases are walking miles to food banks on a daily basis. While the richest increase their income and pay no tax, the rest of us face insecurity and misery.
And while this disaster unfolds the means of communication are getting further and further out of reach of the ordinary people. Lies and deceit are everywhere. The free press, which should probably be called “the very expensive press” based on what they pay Fleet Street hacks, seems more like a pack of attack dogs chewing up truth, while the few sane voices are drowned in the sea of disinformation. It seems to me, after many years working as a professional script writer that our culture has been as badly deformed by the dictates of The Big Dollar as socialist art and culture was under Stalinism. Instead of asking how do we please the censor, a modern TV producer has to ask: how to we make money out of this?
Yet in the middle of all this, British theatre – before lockdown of course – and hopefully again after lock down – has remained something of an oasis in the cultural desert. Rather than sanitised, or frankly stupid entertainment, or glittery distortions and fantasies, theatre has remained a place where audiences can often see work that tells the truth, or explores alternative views and sometimes sticks two fingers up at the system. I’m not talking about the array of musicals here, which have sprung up these last couple of decades, some of which are undoubtedly very entertaining, but which usually aspire to no more than to become billion dollar shows. I’m talking about struggling local theatres and travelling theatre companies, often run by people who are struggling economically and will probably one day have to leave the industry to earn money somehow, somewhere else, but are still for now clinging to the dream of a better life and a better society.
Most of these theatre groups and buildings are funded out of public money. They somehow manage to cling to the notion that our cultural life matters for reasons other than profit making, that truthful words can change the world and that the airing of radical and different views is a vital part of our lives. And yes, you need money to make a show that can enter this realm of debate and feeling – and even ecstasy – but you need a hell of a lot less than you do to make a Netflix show, or a movie, or a billion dollar musical. So somehow, the tradition lives on. Yes theatre struggles to publicise itself, yes a lot of it happens in London, yes some of it is “up itself”, but there’s a lot of amazing theatre out there still all over the country and if you look for it you will find it. Theatre can still turn your world upside down. It can change the life of the young, as it did mine.
I’ve seen fantastically entertaining and moving plays in recent years about child abuse, zero hours contracts and casualisation. About racism, domestic violence, prisons, crime, foreign policy disasters, corruption, immigration, pollution and war. I myself wrote a play called The Political History of Smack and Crack that made the link between the advent of Thatcherism, the 1981 inner city riots that see their fortieth anniversary this year and the massive heroin epidemic that followed in its wake. Sounds heavy, yes? Actually it was a wild comedy that still made people cry at the end.
Make no mistake about it. The pandemic will give the current government a great big excuse to continue their ravenous eternal austerity drive. They have every intention of cutting deeper and deeper into the money they currently pay to every sector and will use every device to divide us against one another. Every penny they cut will go to pay off the billionaires who will use the disaster to continue their takeover of everything. They will say, “How can you expect us to pay for grassroots football, or TV licences for the elderly, or theatre when we’re having to make “tough decisions” like cutting disabled benefits and closing hospitals.
The real truth is there is more than enough out there to go around. They don’t need to cut a thing. All the debts can be paid by collecting due taxes off the corporations that are talking over everything and especially the means of communications – plus a little more on income tax. It’s actually very simple. But the people who control the airwaves would have you believe there isn’t. We have to stand together to protect every inch of ground against those that would tear it out from under our feet.
We have to fight to keep theatre relevant. To let people in who are currently shut out. We have to fight to make work that challenges an increasingly - and I don't know what else to call it - fascistic system.
In fact, I’m going to write a play about this!