Theatre gets political

Ed Kiely 1 February 2008

Ed Kiely

Political theatre. There, 90% of you have already lost interest just from those two words. It probably doesn’t help the cause that the granddaddy of political theatre, Bertolt Brecht, has a reputation for austerity and mind-numbing dullness in equal parts. Somewhat unfairly I might add. The cause is helped even less by the fact that the abiding image of political theatre is an austere, mind-numbingly-dull show filled with people with beards telling you how to live your life. And the cause is finally held down, shot through the head and buried by the fact that most people view the theatre as a means of escape from their everyday life. Fame, anyone?

But political theatre can be fun too! No, really! Look no further than last term’s Mr Kolpert. Okay, so the nudity was a major attraction, obviously. But while the clothes were on, this extremely black comedy had some powerful things to say about modern society and attitudes to death and violence. What was even better about Kolpert was the way it elegantly overshot standards of taste and decency in an attempt to challenge the audience. As hammer blow after hammer blow rained onto the pizza boy’s skull, and blood and teeth fired upwards, violence and dark motives were not lightly implied but explicitly sprayed over everything.

Unfortunately, it must be acknowledged that political theatre can be bearded and boring and, when it is, it is very boring. It would be disingenuous not to confess that possibly the worst piece of theatre I ever sat through (barring my school’s Year 10 production of Richard III, featuring a wheelchair bound Richard, and a strawberry fight) was a production of Brecht’s Mother Courage. A mere three and a half hours long, and featuring no less than two intervals, the director’s sole intention seemed to be to turn Brecht’s thirty-year-long epic into real time – a sort of 24 for the Middle Ages. Combined with the cast taking verfremdungseffekt to mean ‘talking woodenly’, and the somewhat blunt device of jets flying overhead at intervals (‘Hey look everyone, war’s still rubbish’) the production was messy, confusing, and as a whole, much like listening to a three hour conversation between a suicidal funeral director and George Galloway.

The men-with-beards who devise political theatre of this sort are unfortunately neglecting a salient ingredient of Brecht’s theatrical style. In German, Spass. In English, literally, fun. Brecht’s political theatre was intended to poke fun at and satirise authority figures. If the darkly comic potential of the closing scene of Mother Courage is recognised, then it suggests all sorts of questions about the ethics of war and the difficulty of poverty. On the other hand, if it is played by a group of stony-faced, staring, wooden actors moving like marionettes, then it suggests that you may never want to see another ‘political’ play ever again.

If politics is gin, then humour is the tonic (and this metaphor works equally well with any spirit/mixer combination). Humour takes the grim edge off, makes it easier to swallow and, above all else, makes you feel like there’s still hope left. If you can’t laugh at the state of things, you’ll only end up crying. Plays that effectively utilise humour as a device can often have the effect of disguising their true political nature.

Next week, American Eagle, the Corpus Playroom early show, makes political meet funny. Chris Amos’ award-winning play takes a look at American politics over the last fifty years, and offers a critique of interventionism, nationalism and nihilism. But this critique features a host of superheroes and supervillains, and compresses fifty years of history into under a hundred minutes. And it’s fun. Enjoyable, political theatre? Don’t tell the men with beards.

American Eagle is at 19:00 at the Corpus Playroom 5th-9th February