They say politics is theatre, but is theatre political?
I once heard the expression “Washington is Hollywood for ugly people”, and I feel like this sentiment is definitely true when it comes to Westminster, with all the drama and layers of what people present and who they actually are. This performative aspect lends itself to Broadway and the West End quite easily. With one election here just winding down, and another across the pond about to ramp up, let’s look at some of the best works of political theatre in action.
Clinton: The Musical
This off-broadway musical got its start at the Edinburgh Fringe years ago and continues to be a cult classic. While being comedic and mocking seemingly everyone – Republicans for criticising the president over “Whitewater” despite not knowing what it means, Bill for being two-faced, Monica for being naive, and most importantly Hillary for wanting to be liked so much – it does discuss the issues of the 90s with some deeper meaning. It can be described as a less funny, narrower version of the Book of Mormon. The jokes often fall flat and the complexities of certain situations lose nuance explaining why the musical has never really developed past a cheap gag on Broadway.
The Best Man
This Tony-nominated show has had three Broadway runs and has seen the likes of James Earl Jones (yes, Darth Vader) in its cast. It’s a personal favourite of mine and I had the luxury of seeing it back in 2012. The show is about two US primary candidates running at a contested convention in order to represent their party on the ballot for president. The two men make backroom deals in smoky hotel rooms and resort to mudslinging (making scandalous allegations against their opponent to damage their reputation) in order to gain endorsements from key party figures and votes from members at the convention. The play is wonderfully written and really makes an audience feel the tension between ambition and virtue, and their conflict and intersection in politics. While not as whimsical as other Broadway musicals, and certainly more serious, the setting is intimate and draws the audience into its battle like very few plays can.
This original West End – now Tony-winning – play has quietly been the joy of many critics and the ire of many journalists. It is perhaps one of the most mind-boggling plays to look at in hindsight. The play shows a young Rupert Murdoch redefining journalism by battling the large corporate giants, getting together a team of underdog journalists interested in taking the large media firms down. We all know how this play ends – or rather how it’s still being written today – as Rupert Murdoch now is the politically entangled media mafioso he once vowed to destroy. He beat his competitors by racing to the bottom and started a tabloid revolution in Britain. This tale is cyclical and shows us how we too can be corrupted by power and by how our desire to achieve our aims, quickly can become the ones we once despised.
This House is a classic West End play that is perhaps the most “British” play to come out of the past decade. James Graham’s play, similarly to Ink, shows how striving to maintain our goals can ultimately lead to failure. The plot of the play mainly revolves around the idea of cross-party gentlemen’s agreements in order to preserve order, such as the idea of pairing: where if a member of one party were to be absent for a serious reason a member from the opposition would voluntarily abstain in order to maintain balance. However, this being just simple courtesy, it’s hard to enforce and the play goes awry and leads to parliament becoming more distrustful and uncivil. This turmoil and inability to accomplish anything in a hung parliament forces radical change in the next election in the form of Margaret Thatcher. Dun. Dun. DUUUN. The comparisons play well today and parallel nicely with the rise of Boris Johnson in our current political climate. Highlighting our inability to work with one another, growing distrust and polarisation within politics which will lead us to what we fear the most.