An endless question around the student theatre scene is that of politics. Should theatre always have a political dimension? Are all pieces inherently political? And what the hell counts as ‘political’ anyway? With the world the way it is, these questions have emerged in full in this year’s programme, with workshops on creating political theatre and if theatre works in its current form abounding. So I decided to ask a couple of the artists whose work we’ll be critiquing, analysing and splitting apart this year if they feel these elements are actually reflected in their work. Neither said they were setting out to write political pieces – but politics are inescapable in their plays.
This is likely due to the events of the last year. Since last year’s festival, we’ve had the Black Lives Matter movement, the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the Reclaim the Night protests after the tragic death of Sarah Everard.
Mark Fenton, writer of This is a Love Song, has questioned “the relevance and importance of the things I make when important topics are being discussed. Earlier this month, for example, we were looking to start promoting the show properly, and it just felt completely inappropriate. What place does escapism have when we’re neglecting important problems?” But for Flora Wilson Brown, writer of to hunt violets, being “drawn to stories about anything but what’s going on in the world” is in itself political, due to the focus on human experience rather than global politics. I feel this is the way to go – to untether yourself from expectations of engagement and allow them to emerge in the work, without fear of being shouted down for not displaying the correct level of political knowledge. It’s theatre, not Philosophy 101.
This is absolutely not to say that theatre doesn’t always have a political dimension. Mark says “if someone can read political undertones into a piece of work, it’s political”. I agree with Flora that “even if you try to omit politics you’re still choosing what to omit and that says everything about what you consider to be political or important”. This is to such an extent that “you can’t escape it whatever you write”. This is not to negate the work of those that are setting out to explore political topics and stories – just that regardless of intention, you are always making a statement about something, even if you didn’t realise it.
Mark found himself writing about “toxicity”, having set out to write a simple love story, and that the unsympathetic elements of his lead character, Theo, became a statement in themselves – unintentionally or not. In this way, what we choose to write about comes with its own connotations and conclusions. Accepting or rejecting within your story is itself a statement of intent. to hunt violets was being redrafted when Sarah Everard went missing, meaning that the “constant stream of awful news and the outpouring of stories… really changed it” – completely changing the play’s original format and making it “really tough to write”. Our politics and our world become part of our writing process, as well as what we put on the page.
But should we be aiming to create more explicitly political pieces, that rip apart the fabric of society and build it anew? For Flora, telling “good stories that are real” means political work will naturally emerge, due to the circumstances of our times, but that these are rarely big budget: “Like a big West End musical with a super famous cast about the fact that we have like 10 years to save the planet, maybe that’s what we need”. But Mark highlighted a key issue which is still a massive problem in the industry – “people from marginalised groups are often made to feel they can only write about their issues and that they have to be political – whereas the cis white guy can write about whatever he wants.”
It's not an easy answer. You can’t escape the fact that all art comes with politics at its core, due to the circumstances of writing – but this doesn’t negate the need for escapism. If plays are fantasies that explore the key topics of our time, more to the good. But writers should be able to write about what it is that speaks to them. We shouldn’t prescribe it. It should be up to us, the audience, to seek those political subtexts out. Politics is everywhere in theatre: you just have to look for it.