Mark Hankinson urges student theatre groups to swap bland Bardolatry for risky, relevant full-frontal assaults when treading the boards, especially in the current climate
Student theatre - raw, young, uncensored and uncommercial - has a long and proud tradition of vociferous comment on political and social issues close to students' hearts. During the 1970s, campuses up and down the country buzzed with original works commenting on almost every side of every issue from nuclear disarmament to the economic policies of the Labour Government.
It aspired to fill a niche in a theatrical community unwilling to take risks on dangerous and contentious productions.
Since then, however, this aspiration has become less and less realised as students have focused on traditional and populist works. A quick survey of university theatre groups around the country reveals that most of them seem to perform a regular rotation of the same 20 plays - a bland mix of Shakespeare, Stoppard, Ayckbourn and whichever Restoration comedy happens to be on the university English course.
This lack of imagination might grate with those who aspire to noble social and political aims, and also with those who consider student theatre to be a cut above amateur dramatics. But for many, theatrical involvement at university is merely a hobby to while away the undergraduate years rather than the opening salvo in an exciting career. Staging theatre to affect social and political change simply isn't as much fun as running on and off stage in period costume, especially for a demographic that feels famously isolated from and uninterested in the political process. Even Bertolt Brecht, the master of political theatre, acknowledged that sometimes it was necessary to choose between theatre that was entertaining and theatre that was instructive. For many student theatre companies, it is an easy decision.
Focusing on the blandly successful, of course, means that student theatre can lose much of what has traditionally made it exciting. Fortunately, over the past three years, a growing cadre of student writers and directors are trying to ensure that this does not happen.
Cassandra Harwood of University College London was keen to break with the traditional student theatre focus on Shakespeare when she co-directed last year's college play. She says: "Shakespearian tragedies have all been done umpteen times by the professionals, which only makes it harder to bring anything new to them today. We shouldn't be afraid of embarking on plays that tackle more contemporary political and cultural interests relevant to today's society. We need to fill the gap in modern theatre by embracing our academic surroundings and producing theatre that is as didactic as it is droll."
Even for those such as Harwood, who see the important role university groups can play in theatre, there is a growing realisation of the need to conform to commercial realities: an unpopular student show can lose thousands of pounds, easily enough to bankrupt any young theatre company and take a good bite out of a student loan. Shakespeare sells. Stoppard sells. Riskier political texts rarely sell. And student theatre, like it or not, has to sell to survive.
There are a few places, however, where politically interested students can escape commercial realities: for the past 30 years the Durham Drama Festival, which starts next week, has acted as an incubator for riskier projects. By absorbing all the costs and handling many of the traditional roles of a producer, the festival protects and nurtures fledgling theatre companies presenting original and politically charged works. When students are freed from financial concerns, their productions become far riskier and, especially since 2001, far more political.
The original student play Hysteria , for instance, was presented at the 2004 Durham festival. Focusing on the aftermath of the assassination of seven members of the Royal Family by animal-rights activists, the work is a full-frontal assault on the absurdity of mass grieving for strangers, tabloid journalism, mob mentality and the peculiarities of Middle England - the objective, according to author Katherine Pearce, was to be "obvious, controversial and offensive to Daily Mail readers".
Director Isobel Owen says she would have been nervous to put on a piece of original and overtly political theatre had it not been under the umbrella of the festival. "The drama festival is very good in that you can essentially put something on that is a disaster and nobody will really remember it, and equally you can put on a successful show that people will remember. Were I to do a larger show in Durham, it would have to be something more mainstream."
While student plays such as Hysteria are protected from financial risk by the structure of the Durham festival, there can be no protection from the inevitable backlash to political theatre - trying to challenge views and highlight hypocrisy is a dangerous business. Owen thinks that the decline in political theatre over the past few decades has more to do with apathy than with finance: "We are in a society that tries to shy away from controversy. People take such a step back, nobody really wants to take responsibility, nobody really wants to do anything about anything. People are scared about their own views."
Despite being aimed at an audience of such "apathetic" students, Hysteria was a sell-out at Durham, receiving favourable reviews and the award for best original material. The play carefully trod the line between the informative and the entertaining, and some of its success came from the fact that it was very funny, albeit with a political barb hidden inside. Pearce was careful never to forget that "there comes a point where people just want to escape politics and think about other things. Escapism is important, too".
This year's most critical production is likely to be Iba Productions' performance of Ann Nelson's The Guys - about an ex-journalist who helps a New York firefighter write eulogies post-9/11.
One place where unabashed political student theatre seems to flourish is the Edinburgh Festival. Here, as in Durham, financial considerations play only a minor role (everybody loses money at Edinburgh) and caution is truly thrown to the wind. Thousands flood to the city each summer to drink too much alcohol, pay too much rent, turn too many forests into flyers - and see some original and important theatre. Here the audience could not be more different from the average theatre-going crowd; here the traditional, the safe and the boring are rejected; here the original and the risky are prized; here political theatre can flourish.
This year's festival was one of the most politicised in recent years. American foreign policy has always been a popular topic of discussion among students - the late-night rant about American imperialism being almost as integral to student life as cheap pints and stealing traffic cones - and recent events have provoked a flurry of response from student writers, directors and performers concerned with terrorism, the Iraq War and the politics of President George W. Bush. This topic, more than any other, has contributed to the explosion of political theatre from students in the past three years.
One particularly acclaimed production at last year's festival was Women of Troy: Women of War , a frighteningly relevant update of Euripides' tragedy presented by students from Western Michigan University. The work intricately intertwines the plight of the survivors of the Trojan War with stories of conflict from modern times. These first-person accounts, from Bosnia, Vietnam, Germany, Poland and even New York, bring the relevance of the age-old drama into stark clarity.
Women of Troy ... was largely a result of workshops and improvisation and was a student production through and through. As well as performing the play throughout its Edinburgh run (and spending every spare hour fighting the hundreds of other companies for publicity and audiences), the students were deeply involved in the conception and development of the work. It is a piece of drama that truly represents the concerns of students, and it provided a terrifying and thought-provoking evening of theatre. This play was an example of exactly what student theatre should aspire to.
Perhaps the renaissance in political theatre among students is merely a phenomenon brought on by the extreme nature of the current political landscape, but we can hope that it is a phenomenon that lasts. If student theatre is to be important, if student theatre is to be worthwhile and if student theatre is to be anything other than embarrassing amateur dramatics, it must do what the professionals cannot do better - it must not be afraid to take risks, it must not be afraid to express political views and it must not be afraid to aspire to importance.
Mark Hankinson is coordinator of the Durham Drama Festival, which takes place from February 23 to 25.