Friday, 30 November 2012

Of Course It's F-ing Political

There used to be this really irritating advert in which one cartoon figure told another that he "didn't do politics." Cue a series of scenarios in which all conversation was shut down by the character who smugly commented "that's politics, too." This was famously parodied in The Vile Arts' notorious broadcast, when an artist claimed not to read criticism , leading to ninety minutes of the host shouting "that's criticism" every time a guest tried offer an opinion.

The point there is that politics, like criticism, is one of those ideas that tries to apply itself to each circumstance, aggrandising those involved in it and adding to its sense of self-importance. The current debate about "political theatre" is stuck in a similar rut. As long as no-one cares to closely define the parameters of politics, all theatre comes into the discussion. The simple assumption is that political theatre has roots in the agit-prop enthusiasms of the left, weaving back through time to the Bolshevik plays (parodied in the ballet The Golden Age) and flourishing in the 1970s, when 7:84 were relevant and bold, and every playwright in collected editions was banging on about the revolution.

There is, however, a rise in the amount of performance that is explicitly concerned with matters political. Scotland's own Gary McNair and Kieran Hurley have been touring their Crunch and Hitch, Cora Bisset made Glasgow Girls based on a campaign to support asylum seekers, and even Tommy Sheridan had his moment in I, Tommy. By addressing economic meltdown, the protest against the G8, immigration and the rise and fall of Scotland's favourite swinging socialist, the creators have examined subjects that are susceptible to change through the electoral process. Add in Uninvited Guests and it looks like a trend.

It's fortunate that most of these plays also contain high levels of contemporary performance practice, since the 1970s' plays have dated, in some cases, very badly. Both Crunch and Hitch are driven by the presence of their creators and while Glasgow Girls might be a musical, it has a hip, post-modern self-awareness. And although they deal with specific situations - Crunch is one of the most immediate responses to the financial crises - they all contain enough broad philosophy to be applicable in different eras and use the magic of theatre to entertain as well as educate.

Despite all of this, Dennis Kelly - he wrote Pulling, and a play about a boy who liked Osama - has claimed that he doesn't see much point in political theatre. He prefers, quite rightly, to consider whether plays have any meaning rather than define them as political. Unlike that advert telling the nation how bloody important politics is, Kelly is suggesting that a better foundation is to think about quality.

Of course, this won't happen as long as the internet has a tagging system, and "political theatre" is a nice catch-all. For all this obsession with definition, all labels are only short-cuts to appreciation: if lumping Glasgow Girls  in with Hitch gets either piece more attention, the categorisation is worth making. And if the definition opens up the possibility of more criticism....

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