Transferring defiance to the West End stage

With political dramas proving to be big draws, Matthew Morrison assesses the radicalism of playwrights and audiences

August 16, 2012

Credit: Geraint Lewis

“Political” plays are a growing presence on the West End stage. But is this a sign of a new radical energy - or are they too safe to really make a difference? During the early 2000s, much of theatre’s sharpest commentary was to be found in tribunal and testimonial plays at the Tricycle Theatre and the Royal Court Theatre. Elsewhere, companies such as Shunt and Punchdrunk explored new forms of immersive work, and smaller venues and the fringe continued the new writing boom in the long shadow of “in-yer-face theatre”. But as the Blair/Brown era came to an end, writers began to take on more overtly political topics, critiquing facets of “the Establishment” with increasingly mainstream success.

Three of the most significant examples were staged at the Royal Court. In Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem (2009), a “Lord of Misrule” gives a last cry for a bygone England. Lucy Prebble’s Enron (which premiered at the Minerva Theatre Chichester in the same year before moving to the Royal Court) was an all-singing, all-dancing dissection of the collapse of a multinational energy giant. Laura Wade’s Posh (first produced on the eve of the 2010 general election and revived for the coalition era) satirised an Oxbridge drinking society with clear parallels to the real-life Bullingdon Club that counts Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne among its former members. All three plays transferred to the West End, where they were readily and warmly embraced. But is this a cause for celebration? Or should we be worried that such ready acceptance is proof that a play lacks real teeth?

Jerusalem was the first of these Royal Court “blockbusters”. Set in a Wiltshire village on St George’s Day, it follows Romany fabulist and drug dealer Johnny “Rooster” Byron as he faces eviction by the local council. Deeply political in the way it addresses anxieties of contemporary Englishness, it is also poetic and mysterious.

Butterworth describes the play as “satisfying a hunger in audiences for wildness and defiance”. Its director, Ian Rickson, echoes this, arguing that “there is something at its heart to do with defiance that really speaks to people”.

Intriguingly, this picture is complicated by a lesser-known “production” of the play, which took place in 2011 on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. Here, with the blessing of Butterworth and his publisher Nick Hern Books (NHB), groups of Occupy the Stock Exchange protesters hosted their own “guerrilla” performances. Those involved empathised with the outsider figure of Johnny Byron in ways that were more than simply cathartic. In an NHB blog post, “Bill”, the organiser of the production, also paid tribute to the play’s “defiance against rising tyranny”. But in this context, that recurring word - “defiance” - has an altogether different quality.

Jerusalem certainly spoke to people outside the community of regular theatregoers. But the reasons for its popularity among West End audiences may be more complex than Butterworth and Rickson allow. Would all those who rooted for the character on stage at the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue have been as supportive of the residents of Dale Farm who were finally evicted, after a long legal battle, in 2011? Might there have been elements of escapism, or even voyeurism, in their vicarious identification with him? Similar concerns exist elsewhere. This month, Posh finished its run at the Duke of York’s Theatre. During the interval, champagne was conspicuously on sale in the foyer. There was hardly an expectation, then, that the play would shock its audiences into socialism.

In an interview for the theatreVOICE website, the playwright Simon Stephens identifies Jerusalem, Enron and One Man, Two Guvnors (Richard Bean’s riotous 2011 reworking of Carlo Goldoni’s 1743 Servant of Two Masters) as the defining plays of recent years. But in contrast with his own desire “to probe, to unsettle, to disorientate”, Stephens suggests that “the fundamental action” of these plays was “to entertain, to uplift, to inspire, to tickle”. Edward Hall, the artistic director of Hampstead Theatre, goes further in his championing of Stephens’ own (much less commercially successful) play The Trial of Ubu, a riff on Alfred Jarry’s absurdist classic Ubu Roi. He is quoted by critic Matt Trueman as saying that “it is indicative of the form-breaking work that any theatre that holds the impulse of new writing at its centre should aspire to”. What these remarks imply is that today’s West End is most attracted to plays that are formally conservative in the sense that they rely on well-rehearsed storytelling tropes and are rather less radical and challenging than they might seem.

This point can obviously be overstated. The example of the Occupy protesters underlines Jerusalem’s potentially subversive content. Similarly, Posh is more daring than some have given it credit for. It was The Daily Telegraph’s critic Charles Spencer who most clearly identified the boldness of the play’s epilogue, in which the contemporary political Establishment is exposed as a quasi-Masonic clique (although Spencer calls such an argument paranoid).

Nonetheless, one can argue that all the plays under consideration do exhibit familiar structural properties. Looked at through this lens, Jerusalem might be interpreted as a classical tragedy about a man’s last stand. Enron is a simple “rise and fall” narrative. Posh is especially respectful of the Aristotelian unities. Have such stories, couched in their comforting dramaturgy, lost their power to probe, unsettle or disorientate? And might that help to explain their easy absorption by West End audiences, a group often characterised as more interested in entertainment than provocation?

It may be unsurprising that the commercial sector is seldom fully committed to the most experimental work. In the same theatreVOICE interview, Stephens points to the role of the subsidised sector in bringing forward such writing. The real danger is that, if theatres with long radical traditions such as the Royal Court keep one eye on the transfer potential of their commissions, they risk compromising this crucial responsibility.

We mustn’t fall into the trap, however, of thinking that acceptance by a large audience is automatically a sign of a play’s timidity or conservatism. One play in particular, revived this summer at the National Theatre, proves that there is a place for more formally innovative work on our larger stages.

London Road, created by Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork in 2011, is a “verbatim” musical. It draws on testimony by the neighbours of Steve Wright, the man who murdered five sex workers in Ipswich in 2006. In common with the vast majority of musicals, it is concerned with the opposition between community and outsiders (also the subject matter of Jerusalem). Here, however, the outsiders are radically removed from the equation: the sex workers themselves have almost no place in the drama. Pushed to the margins by society, they are also marginalised within the dramaturgy of the play, appearing only for one brief but harrowing moment. Instead we get a dense, almost suffocating, portrait of a self-preserving community. The way in which the characters speak with a single voice provides a powerful critique of society’s fear of “the other”.

The encouraging lesson of London Road is that bold theatrical experimentation that pushes the boundaries of form and content can also have a wide appeal. Perhaps there is nothing to rule out the possibility of the commercial sector producing such plays. Such decisions, however, would run contrary to its natural instincts, and we shouldn’t allow relief that new writing has recently had a more established place in the West End ecology to cloud our judgement about the political edge of the work itself.

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