Thursday, 17 February 2011

James Wilkes: How I accidentally became a Political playwright*

“Political Theatre? All theatre is political. With a small ‘p’ or a capital ‘p’, it’s all political” is one of the pearls of wisdom handed down to Belt Up from York Theatre Royal artistic director (and unsung Scottish philosopher) Damian Cruden whilst we’ve been in residence under his wing. The idea of ‘Political Theatre’ (with a big ‘p’) is something I’ve never really been that interested in to be honest. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it; I just wasn’t intrigued by it. I’m happy to confess that I grew up with that Political apathy commonly attributed to my generation. I was indifferent. Politics were of no interest to me and when I started to write plays they weren’t Political in the slightest, they were surreal and mainly tried to find the most ridiculous use of the word ‘fuck’.

But then something happened. That election that happened last year. Remember that? That’s what happened.

I was pulled into the buzz of the election mainly because of the potential cuts to arts funding. My job is running a theatre company and so this felt like a threat. A danger lurking over the hill. Which party was going to be best for the arts? Labour? They did a war and that. Did they like arts? They’d brought in the ‘A night less ordinary scheme’ – that was nice of them. Or those nice Lib Dem chaps who’ve been sitting patiently in the corner for so long. They seem nice. Quite good policies on the arts too. And that nice Mr Clegg seems lovely. How about the Conservatives? What’s their arts policy? Oh...right... I see.

And then I realised that this was actually the first vote I’d ever have in a general election. What to do with it? So far I was judging almost purely on the arts but then the country changed. Everyone seemed to be interested in this election. More so than anyone had seemed before in my memory – I couldn’t remember the election buzz in 1997, I was more concerned with who was going to win the Intercontinental title in WWE (née WWF). There were all those exciting television debates. That nice Mr Clegg did awfully well didn’t he in that first one? Everyone started discussing the election. Everyone seemed to start becoming Political. And I was too. It felt like an important moment. It wasn’t just about who was going to protect the arts. It was about every aspect. I was now paying tax, I wanted a say in where those taxes went. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to be screwed over by policies that weren’t interested in me. All of a sudden I, like so many other people, was Political.

With that I began to appreciate Political satire. Those funny cartoons in the paper which used to be unfunny had now become funny, well some of them. I started properly appreciating people like Armando Ianucci – the perfect combination of Political satire and genius uses of the word ‘fuck’. I had joyfully stepped out of the Political apathy that I’d been in previously (I was young, everyone was doing it).

And then that fateful day in May came. I’ve been told it’s not the ‘done’ thing to say who you voted for but I can say that I didn’t vote for the baddies. Nevertheless that Mr David Cameron assumed the throne with the potentially not so nice Mr Clegg perched uncomfortably on the arm. And then all those cuts happened. And all those places started closing down. And all those people got angry. I don’t need to describe the effect; you can look in a newspaper to see that.

By Politics (with a big ‘p’) I mean the shifts, changes, decisions etc that happen in regards to government. Politics (with a small ‘p’, it only has a big one in this case for grammatical reasons) are those same conflicts in a much broader sense; the often conflicting interrelationships in society, between friends, between family members, between humans. There’s that advert where they’re like ‘are you interested in politics’ and they list a load of things and then they’re like ‘haha, we tricked you, those are politics’ to make people more political, you remember that? They were trying to get young people out of that political apathy. The point is, before there was a definite difference between Big Politics and little – more personal – politics, of course they’re connected but it was easy to forget that connection. Today though, that connection is Prevalent. Big Politics are having a very visible impact on everyday life and it’s this that has shaken a lot of people out of Political apathy. The sorts of protests that only occurred in France are now happening on our doorstep. A Christmas tree was set on fire. Even Prince Charles and his ‘other woman’ were attacked (or they just wound down their windows for a chat depending on who you’re talking to). People are now using their voices and wanting to be heard.

Up until now I'd say all of my plays, and all of Belt Up’s work have mainly been political in that small ‘p’ way dealing with people, how they respond to each other, the world and society. They've never been overtly Political. But then we were asked to put on a show as part of the York Theatre Royal Takeover Festival (a festival set up with the deceased ‘A Night Less Ordinary’ scheme). We enjoy working with established texts and rediscovering them and we eventually settled on a reworking of John Gay’s ‘The Beggar’s Opera’.

The Beggar’s Opera was written as a Political and political satire in 1728 and caused a scandal with the complain-about-culture-Prick the Lord Chamberlain (nowadays he’s been replaced by the Daily Mail and Stephen Green). We wanted our version to talk about today, to put onstage people like Mr Cameron and that nonce Mr Clegg (he’s not actually a nonce but it’s a play on how I was calling him ‘nice’ earlier, clever) and to talk about some of the Politics that are governing the politics of today. Of course we didn’t want to play people of right now, we wouldn’t get costumes for a start, we’d just be wearing our own clothes. The concept became one of setting our version in the not too distant past, long enough ago for the audience to be relatively objective but recent enough to recognise the effects. Ironically, thanks must go to Mr William Hague for the setting, his quip about Cameron and Osbourne being the ‘Children of Thatcher’ inspired the setting of the 1980’s. So in this adaptation of ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ we have a group of ‘beggars’ (they’re not literally beggars) protesting and satirising Maggie Thatcher’s government; A government which has huge echoes with the one we’ve got today. We’ve ended up with a musical that is simultaneously set in 2011, 1988 and 1728. We haven’t let Cameron, Clegg and their chums off the hook of course, they will be appearing onstage but you’ll have to see the show to see in which guises.

And so, despite my years of Political apathy I’ve accidentally become, I guess, a Political playwright. Don’t worry, I’ve spent a long time researching and catching up on all those years of indifference. All theatre is political, it is pretty much impossible for anything to be apolitical, but ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ is unashamedly Political. It’s not propaganda. It’s not a preach. It’s satire. It’s about the political conflicts that we’re living in today. With Margaret Thatcher singing.

James Wilkes

The Beggar's Opera runs from 24th-26th March at York Theatre Royal

* This was going to be called 'Accidental Birth of an Anarchist'. I'm not an anarchist though. It's just a witty (in a wanky way) title that I liked the sound of


  1. The problem with political theatre, P or p, is that British theatre as we experience it is still a very conservative and passive establishment. We can leave any theatre going "oh, isn't the world a cruel place" but do we actually actively go out and make a difference to the world? David Hare’s work and certain elements of Brecht were informative pieces, after seeing ‘The Permanent Way’ the audience know a lot more about the treachery of privatisation, or seeing the recent ‘Deep Cut’ about the cruel psychology involved in soldier, but will they actively fight back or attempt to change the world? Berkoff’s ‘Sinking the Belgrano’ came out 2 years after the event, what’s the point in doing anything about the atrocity when it all seems to incredible passive? So theatre itself cannot change the world, writing a p/Political play, seeing a p/Political play or even understanding a p/Political play is worthless whilst nothing is actively being done to stop any injustice in the world. So the simple solution would be for a play to link up with a cause, a play such as ‘Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads’ could have an anti-Fascist stall, perhaps the UAF (Unite Against Fascism) in the theatre and sell tickets for coaches to the next rally against the NF, BPP, BNP or EDL or whatever crude organisation is rearing its ugly head. A play such as ‘Wonderful World of Dissocia’ could have a link up with those trying to improve conditions in psychiatric hospitals. But then we get bogged down in the problem of not only which cause is the ‘right’ cause (Anarchists and the far left would argue the Socialist Worker’s Party-led UAF are a poor and ineffective excuse for an anti-fascist platform). Is ‘Deep Cut’ critical of soldiers in general? Would an anti-war cause like Stop The War want to support a play which defends the rights of soldiers? Maybe Help For Heroes could get on board, but then that might spur off more militant anti-war campaigners.

    In the context of Belt Up, the only play that springs to mind that has a specifically been p/Political to date is ‘Elsewhere’. Clearly I’m mildly biased but it encouraged people to stand up for the fate of libraries and defend them, but now Libraries are actively under threat. Has ‘Elsewhere’ trained people to fight back and defend these buildings, or will people just read the newspaper and say “Oh, I saw a play where they closed a library down, what a shame”. Perhaps casual open questions we can never truly answer easily on a wordpress comment box :P

    But I do believe that p/Political theatre is incredibly important not to change the world, but to change people. The works and actions of Dario Fo and Harold Pinter have changed how I think about art. I care about issues, I care about fighting the good fight. I’ll march in the street, I’ll stand on picket lines, I’ll write plays, poems and songs about Unions and I’ll do everything I can to tear down any right-wing agenda. But this is me doing it, it is the people doing it, it is the masses and the public doing it. The words on the page aren’t, the play that lasted 90 mins isn’t, the ice cream you buy at the internal isn’t. I doubt the Egyptians really fancy seeing a play right now, and no doubt someone will write a play about what has occurred in Egypt in the next few years. But when I stand in the street and shout my mouth off, when I take part in occupations and, hell, when maybe possibly maybe possibly could be the British revolution comes (or at least a big reformation) I’ll be doing whatever I find myself doing because of Harold Pinter, Dario Fo, Woody Guthrie, Percy Shelly, Joe Strummer, Paul Weller and countless others.

    In the words of the anarcho-folk-punk band Wingnut Dishwasher’s Union: “a punk rock song won’t ever change the world, but I can tell you of a couple that changed me”. Replace the ‘punk rock’ part with theatre and that sums up my long, boring rant.

  2. Interesting post, and interesting reply from Henry with his admiringly lengthy list of political playwrights and artists. Of course, it is easy post-WWII Britain (or even post-Thatcher Britain...) for us to forget about playwrights who were considerably more political than many of those listed here. Currently I am in the process of finishing my dissertation on a much neglected political playwright of the early twentieth century: Bernard Shaw. He is also a good example of why the small p/P is an unhelpful distinction; the personal philosophical attitudes of society cannot be (usefully) separated from the wider political process.

    While James is frank in admitting that his interest in politics originated when his own interests (cuts in arts) were at stake, this is, in itself, an ironic reflection of post-Thatcher Britain in which the Individual's interests are prioritised. And in terms of Henry's comment, I think political theatre would be all the poorer if audience members were signing-up for causes after watching fictitious drama. Look at Pinter's comments on the RSC's didactic production 'US' - he walked out of the production. Neilson's Dissocia is exemplary of this danger of 'campaigning theatre'. As he acknowledges in his introduction to the play, most mental hospitals are nothing like the white and sterile set design presented in the second act of his play. His blatant manipulation of this fact, illustrates his inability to convey his political argument without resorting to imposing 'untruthful' effects.

    I look forward to seeing The Beggar's Opera, and hope it does not resort to similar effects working on a purely visceral level.

  3. Typo: *admirably* is what I meant rather than 'admiringly' in my previous comment.

  4. I remember last year when everyone was posting little images in their Facebook pictures of something called 'I Value The Arts'. What exactly was 'I Value The Arts'? I looked at their website, it was basically a petition. Cuts are happening everywhere, the squeeze is tight and yet I haven't heard anything from 'I Value The Arts' in terms of national campaigning. If someone can tell me locally where IVTA has done some good, then I am very sorry to sound so critical, but on a national level it seems like the battle appears pretty much lost. I’m sure there are local battles being fought and being won, but certainly not to the arts I know about in my area of the places I work for. Political theatre is still trapped within the medium of entertainment, you see a play, you go home. No matter how subversive, controversial, stirring, honest, truthful or, hey, even dangerous a play can be it is still a play with a beginning, middle, end. And any system of power or government can (and will) walk all over us. Cuts will not stop just because a play/poem/song says they should. Neither will human rights abuses, poverty, wars, exploitation etc. You can still become turned on, switched on, eager to enter the battle and keep fighting, but that’s a product of the play’s existence and effect on YOU, and not the play’s existence itself. This is the pain of our medium, ineffectual and yet life-changing.

    I know what you mean about the second half of Dissocia but I refer back to David Hare’s work which is purely verbatim, and to be honest fairly dry and ineffectual in my opinion, it reduces the theatrical to a documentary style. I would say that Nielson isn’t necessarily imposing untruthfulness, the ending is no doubt manipulative, but it’s all part of a theatrical framework (the stage is covered in a surreal giant glass sheet) and plays and art are, as a rule, manipulative. They make us laugh, cry, get angry and become sad and that is their power. They play with our emotions and feelings. Or maybe people disagree with this. I don’t know. What’s the point seeing art unless we feel something inside our souls? Or is that pedantic?

    I do admit it then is a strange issue when one gets into the realm of manipulating politics, facts, issues and causes. Are we then manipulating people to believe in things we want them to, is that tantamount of propaganda? I’m not sure I know the answer to be honest. PaperBirds explore the dangers in their recent shows ‘In A Thousand Pieces’ and ‘Others’. Is it right for them to be manipulative with verbatim. I say yeah…’cos I love their work. But that’s not a dissertation answer ;)

    So, yeah, Belt-Up, this I suppose is the dilemma. March 26th the Trade Union Congress has called for a huge march on London. Every single major Union will be attending, some estimate 200,000 in the streets, some optimistic predications give 1 million. Is Begger’s Opera a chance to link-up with York’s Right To Work campaign who are organising coaches down on the 26th to march? Or is that diluting the theatre, making it merely a mouthpiece of politics, disrupting the art and imagination of the magic of the play? Is it even merely propaganda? I don’t know the answers, just throwing thoughts around.