How Political Should Theatre Be?

(Siân Brooke) by Mark Douet.

(Siân Brooke) by Mark Douet.

  • Abi Ingham

I recently went to see a broadcast of David Hare’s new play, ‘I’m Not Running.’ A political comedy that is excellently staged, one exchange stood out to me. “I’m not political” claims Pauline when she first meets Sandy as his doctor, “why not?” is Sandy’s response.

This question is important because we should all be political, whether we want to be actively involved or not we should all be focused on politics as it affects every part of our lives. If you are lucky enough not to be political, it shows how you feel so secure and protected in your existence and have never had to worry about how someone’s opinions will affect your daily life. How far into politics and political agendas should theatre delve? Should theatre stay away from specific political events such as Brexit, and controversial political figures such as Donald Trump?

The theatre is a way of broadcasting the playwright’s opinions to a mass audience. It could be another form of propaganda, or it could simply be one person trying to put forward their viewpoint. How far should theatre go? Some plays barely touch on overly political issues whilst still maintaining a sense of politics through the behaviour of characters. Other plays, such as Alan Bennett’s ‘Allelujah!’ have a plot that may not seem overly political but is brought to be by characters such as Doctor Valentine who is trying to stay in the country despite his visa having run out. This is advanced at the denouement of the play with Valentine addressing the audience rather than other characters, questioning just how welcoming Britain can be if ‘education is a privilege and nationality a boast.’ This is a play that subtly lectures the audience on the failings of Britain as a nation while having the focus on something completely different. In fact, the main twist in the story happens at the end of the first act, the rest of the story focusing on the politics of the matter, what is and is not acceptable.

In both Hare’s ‘I’m Not Running’ and Bennett’s ‘Allelujah!’ the main plot point generally seems to be the closing of a community hospital due to budget cuts. Could this be because this is an issue everyone feels a similar way about, save perhaps from a few politicians? It is an issue to unite the audience while another issue plays about in the background. Is this an example of how the media treat politics, focus on one issue, such as Brexit and give little focus to other, just as important issues such as Universal Credit and how it is not working for the majority of people who rely on it.

Plays that discuss politics must be written by someone who is not afraid. Not afraid to criticize, or influence, but is also open to being criticized. In political discourse, there will always be someone else who disagrees with you, and the same is true for these playwrights. However, their views are being expressed through art because this is the best way they know how to influence people. Theatre makes a mark on us whether we like it or not, and if the only thing you remember from ‘Allelujah!’ is Doctor Valentine’s face as he is asked by a disembodied voice to sing Land of Hope and Glory, then perhaps you will remember how some people are desperate to stay in the place they have built a home yet are sent home because of paperwork. If all you take away from ‘I’m Not Running’ is the look of joy mixed with apprehension on Pauline’s face as she announces her intentions then you will remember that it is harder for female politicians to make their mark than their male counterparts.

The other side of this is, of course, politics lecturing us on theatre. Arts programmes in schools are always under threat, music, drama, and art nearly always the first to suffer after budget cuts are announced. I’m not saying that sciences and humanities are more deserving of these budget cuts, but it is important to mention that perhaps it needs to be considered that all these subjects are of equal importance. Perhaps one of the reasons, that we as artists use art to discuss politics is because we need to use the best way we can express ourselves to show that we will not ignore politics and how it affects us.

Our voices and opinions are not worth any less just because we work on something that politicians may deem to be worth less than economics, or scientific endeavor. We all contribute, in our way, and so our opinions should be projected across theatres. People can watch a play about a hospital closure and remember that it meant something about the status of women, or how our country treats immigrants.