How does theatre become a political act?

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Theatre-making is art. Art is inseparable from politics. Politics, therefore, is woven into the fabric of theatre-making. Artists have always used theatre as a platform upon which to make political statements, incite change or endorse movements. Theatre is used to make theatre-goers aware of the problems in society.

Theatre holds society to account, and the dramaturge is the journalist not of words, but of visual spectacle. They take issues they feel strongly about and use a variety of media to present it in a particular way, editing, revising and reconstructing to fit their agenda.

Theatre-making can become a political act, I would say, by taking something the audience knows well and changing one major element of it to shock them into political debate. A recent example of this is the 2017 adaptation of Julius Caesar by Shakespeare in the Park. The company made a loud political statement by portraying Caesar in a very Trump-like manner and having ethnic minorities and women stab him to death in the infamous, catastrophic scene. Consequently, the show’s sponsorship was withdrawn and Donald Trump Jr., came to his father’s defence, challenging the boundaries of art and political speech.

“Theatre holds society to account”

I would argue that art doesn’t ‘become’ political speech; it naturally is political speech. Every creative decision made in any theatrical process could indicate a political message for at least one audience member. For this reason, theatre is an effective mode through which an individual can exercise their freedom of speech.

Bertolt Brecht, undoubtedly a heavy weight in political theatre and a favourite of mine, was the most significant visual journalist of the mid-20th century. He took seemingly unmanageable global issues such as the rise of fascism and condensed them into pieces of theatre which challenged the audience’s preconceptions.

Brecht claimed that ‘art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it’, a statement I believe holds true in his influential work, Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (Mother Courage and her Children). Watching Anna Jordan’s adaptation of this classic piece last year at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, I noticed how timeless the play’s statements are.

Brecht tells us that war is a hungry machine which consumes the poor and lines the pockets of the rich. This Orwellian notion should strike a chord with anyone who has lived since the play’s writing in 1939, since it foreshadows America’s military-industrial complex during the Cold War and the West’s militant hunt for oil in the Middle East.

Despite it envisioning a dystopic war-torn Europe, Jordan’s adaptation, starring Julie Hesmondhalgh, succeeded in alluding to modern political crises. The play began with the stage in a blue wash and a ring of warm lights projected over it, an apt nod to the EU and Brexit.

It can clearly be understood that theatre is undoubtedly inseparable from politics. However, I believe that politics should not stop when the audience leaves the building. Just as a controversial newspaper article makes a reader want to proclaim their opinion to the world, effective theatre journalists should make an audience discuss and debate what they have witnessed onstage, whether they agree with the views expressed or not. Otherwise, in the words of Oscar Wilde, ‘all art is quite useless’ – that would be a scary road to tread indeed.

Photo by Annie Gavin via Pixaby.

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