In the meantime, I did check out the speech made by Maria Miller. Ever since Rob Drummond did a version of the Blondie number and dedicated it to the arts minister, I've been trying to get my head around the problem. I mean, she's a Tory, right? Did anyone expect her to say anything that didn't involve their catch-phrase of austerity?
The British political theatre of the 1970s, at least in the English, scripted variations, expressed a determinedly socialist intention and an almost anarchic cynicism about the antics of socialist politicians. The Labour Party is pictured as hopelessly compromised, the smaller parties as dismal cults of personality. Before the advent of punk, which fired into the raw, inarticulate alienation of the working classes, theatre was possibly the most dynamic public forum for the discussion of counter-cultural ideology. While the hippies of the 1960s settled into drug psychoses and addiction, or mellowed out over Pink Floyd’s jams, playwrights were seething.
If there is a revival of the political urge amongst young playwrights today, it is tempered by the spirit of the 1980s (Thatcher’s declaration that there is no such thing as society might be more historically prescient than her war against trade unionism, what with the reformation of ideas like “friendship” and “privacy” thanks to the Internet) and the 1990s, when Tony Blair deliberately courted the arts and, mainly in the now derided Cool Brittania phase, made them courtiers to the state. Rather than taking swipes at the figures who engage with existing political systems, there is a focus on the lives of the victims of the systems. At its best, contemporary political theatre is compassionate rather than angry.
Anger is a difficult emotion to express. It is deliberately repulsive: much of the reason for the original resistance to punk was perhaps its naked aggression. Whether The Sex Pistols were mining the incoherent anguish of personal alienation, or The Clash were making rudimentary attempts to join the political dots, punk married a conservative sound – the rough edges of noise that would later flourish in the wave of 1980s bands who regarded feedback as an instrument were more a function of musical ineptitude – with an immediate rage. If early rock’n’roll took the joyous and nervous blossoming of adolescent sexuality, punk grounded itself in the teenage temper tantrum.
Rob Drummond is possibly marking himself out as the angriest of the new generation of Scottish theatre-makers. Both Quiz Show and Riot of Spring have scenes of disgust: the quiet meditation on child abuse that concludes the former and the karaoke tribute to Maria Miller in the latter. They swerve into the lack of focus that is often the hallmark of rage – the closing monologue of Quiz Show fails to consider why celebrities can get away with paedophilia, merely condemning it (a statement impossible to reject), and the irritation directed at the culture minister is trivial, especially in the context of a play that brings up the major disturbances that rocked London (before the Olympics restored a measure of national pride).
In both cases, however, Drummond is exploring something different from the compassion studies of his contemporaries Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair. In Rantin, Hurley offers a kaleidoscope of modern Scottish lives, only briefly tearing into the tyranny of late capitalism and containing this monologue within a broader narrative that is more interested in presenting the richness of individual’s lives. McNair’s thrilling Donald Robertson, meanwhile, is a close-up on how comedy can save a young man’s social status while destroying his moral integrity.
Drummond is harking back to the 1970s of the punks rather than the playwrights: he is doing anger as a counterblast. If it works better within The Riot, that is because the overall structure – episodic, sketchy and consciously aping a DIY production – hold the moment more carefully. The speech at the end of Quiz Show, while a more precise moral position, is disappointingly vague in a play that has a well-managed formal shape. The difference is between the script, which allows for deeper discussion, and the DIY devised show that taps into immediate energy.
The kind of detailed political analysis that can make the 1970s’ authors dated has not resurfaced in the contemporary political writers. It’s noticeable that much of the strongest political theatre has addressed matters of national identity – Alan Bissett’s Turbo Folk or Greig’s Dunsinane.
There’s a precision in these works’ understanding of the relationship between Scotland and the UK that has not been matched in the early responses to the London riots. Hurley, in collaboration with AJ Taudevin, offered Chalk Farm, a look at the experience of a rioter and their mother, an approach mirrored in Riot of Spring. In both cases, the story was descriptive and the underlying assumptions about the reasons behind the riot were more struts for the plot and characters than the complex deconstruction Dunsinane applies to Anglo-Scottish relations.
In two senses, this isn’t important. Drummond and Hurley, and Taudevin, are all emerging artists – hardly at the first stage of their career, but not in the pomp of their glory. There’s time for them to do the analysis, probably when they become middle-aged. And it isn’t just the job of the artist to complete the discussion: the audience can get involved too. Both Chalk Farm and Riot, and Rantin et cetera provide a provocation.
Indeed, the compassion Hurley and Taudevin display in Chalk Farm sets a tone for the discussion, as well as giving a few details for the post-show arguments. Even the incompleteness has a virtue: it prevents the drama from becoming a rhetorical announcement of a definitive position. As Leonard Cohen points out, when he wasn’t boasting about sexual conquests or being a Baldy Buddhist, it’s the crack in everything that lets the light come in.