Rebecca Richard discusses the crucial role of political theatre in modern society.
When I was 10 years old, I had no interest in politics. Politics was for the grown-ups. the most I had to worry about was getting my homework diary signed weekly. But when my mum took me to see an amateur performance of Theresa Breslin’s Divided City – the story of two young Glaswegian boys who want to play football together but are separated by prejudice – my mind was redirected from the latest Club Penguin event to the issues close to home: sectarianism and racism against asylum-seekers in Glasgow. Leaving the theatre that day, even as a little girl with no interest in football rivalry, my mind was whirling with the injustices of discrimination against people from other countries, and religious separation (something I had never considered, coming from a nonreligious family). These issues were performed in front of me in such a way that even as a child I understood their severity. Political theatre therefore makes a difference and is an invaluable tool of information for our society.
It is often argued that people enjoy theatre as an escape from the real world and political theatre doesn’t provide that escapism. While I understand this, I personally cannot say I go to the theatre to see a play that will leave no meaningful impact on me whatsoever. I think one of the most beautiful things about theatre is stepping out into the night air with a sombre but enlightened feeling, having seen a story acted out right in front of you. It almost feels etched into your mind in a way digital viewings can never replicate. So much of our political information is received via screens making it so easy to feel detached from the content, but a live viewing of real issues connects the story and the audience on a more personal level than Twitter could ever manage. Whether it be TV or radio shows, books or newspapers, it is easy to switch off or close the pages on uncomfortable topics. Sat in a theatre, the audience cannot just change the channel. I find there to be something much more human about theatre. History books provide facts and timelines but when the stories are acted out, they become more alive and their subject matter difficult to ignore.
I think when people hear the term “political theatre” there is a fatigue: “does everything have to be made political?”. But political theatre doesn’t have to be male actors in suits reenacting governmental procedure. Hidden beneath catchy songs, elaborate routines or comedy are serious undertones; political theatre does not have to be depressing or directly informative to make the message clear. Take Hairspray for example. As a child when I first became acquainted with the civil rights movement through the musical, it made me ask why the characters can’t all just dance together. Political messages in fun productions are a great start for political engagement. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for example, hatred between two sides resulted in two teenage deaths. Although generally accepted as a romance, I don’t think the message of the fatal dangers of division is complex or takes away from the enjoyment of the story. The Crucible by Arthur Miller about the Salem witch trials is a harrowing watch of the prejudice against young girls and the dangers of hysteria. Outside of traditional plays, West Side Story covers the same content as Romeo and Juliet, instead told through entertaining dance numbers and modern characters. The musical Rent has a diverse cast representing the LGBTQ+ community, discussing important concerns of poverty; HIV/Aids; and drug abuse. At first glance these titles don’t immediately scream “political theatre”, but their underlying messages are inherently politicised.
It is often questioned, because viewers actively choose the story they want to consume, whether political theatre just reinforces the audience’s own views. Whilst I can certainly see this being possible, I think political theatre is about more than what the politically engaged members of society choose to consume. The previously mentioned titles with less-immediately obvious politicisation can prompt engaging political discussion and information for people who aren’t necessarily interested in party politics.
The political engagement that these stories sparked for me and the comfort they can bring through their representation of minorities’ struggles indisputably matters. Theatre opened me up to the fact that this world is not as rosy as it seems and there are real struggles that my demographic might not have been exposed to otherwise. Politics manifests in lived realities. It shapes our education, home, income and social status. It is unavoidably present in our lives and therefore vital that the differing experiences of politics are reflected live on stage, not just in books.