If you want to understand politics today, ask a playwright…
Last October, on the same afternoon Boris Johnson’s hopes of taking Britain out of the European Union were being derailed by the Letwin amendment in Parliament, a group of twenty-something actors were to be found smoking outside the stage door of the Rose Theatre in Kingston.
The young thespians were part of the cast for the revival of Laura Wade’s 2010 play Posh which originated at the Royal Court before transferring to the West End. On the surface Wade’s drama, depicting the outrageous antics in an elite student drinking den called The Riot Club - loosely based on Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club -had nothing to do with Brexit.
Yet Wade powerfully uses the Riot Club trashing a gastropub as a metaphor for what elite posh boys are capable of and it seemed somehow apt to watch the play while the messy consequences of former Bullingdon Club member David Cameron’s momentous decision to call a referendum over Britain’s EU membership were being painfully played out in Westminster - with Remainers and Leavers all accusing each other of sabotage.
With her play serving as a damning indictment of the born-to-rule class, Wade is hardly something out of Conservative Central Office but she shies away from publicly weighing in on politics no matter how pertinent her plays prove to the political situation. And she is far from the only theatre writer of her generation to have penned stage drama that has wound up foreshadowing the news agenda…
Mike Bartlett’s 2014 play King Charles III originated at the Almeida Theatre before transferring to the West End and Broadway. The play imagines what happens after the death of Queen Elizabeth II with Bartlett devising a plot-line in which King Charles III and his sons disagree over a bill proposing to restrict freedom of the press which the new monarch steadfastly opposes.
This plot twist struck some reviewers as implausible. Yet with Meghan, Duchess of Sussex currently suing the Mail on Sunday over stories published in the run-up to her wedding with Prince Harry, such a scenario now hardly seems outlandish.
Bartlett recently told the Financial Times that while he wants his work to chime with the times, he hates the idea of preaching to the converted. “The value of art is not to come out campaigning for a very specific politics,” he said, adding while he draws inspiration from contemporary subjects, he has no desire for a “liberal theatre-going audience to celebrate the views we already hold”.
The new generation of playwrights are a throwback in that they want to scrutinise the issues of the day without going overboard on messaging.
James Graham, often described as the hottest political playwright, has written dramas about Edward Heath (Tory Boyz), Rupert Murdoch (Ink) and most notoriously his Brexit film for Channel 4. Matthew Byam Shaw, a theatre producer who also produces The Crown on Netflix, describes Graham as “more of a social historian than a playwright.”
“I’m happy to go and see work where the author’s voice yells at you and tells you what to think- it’s just never going to be the thing I want to write myself,” Graham told me earlier this year. “People think that’s controversial but I would argue the most controversial thing you could do as a political playwright at the moment is seek unity and compassion rather than to provoke or galvanise about a single point of view.”
This sentiment is echoed across the Atlantic. New York’s ingrained liberal theatre bias is perhaps best epitomised by the cast of musical phenomenon Hamilton making a special Broadway political address to an audience that included vice president-elect Mike Pence in November 2018.
Yet for all its wokeness and leftism, American theatre has recently produced notable plays which have challenged PC thinking on education (Joshua Harmon’s Admissions) and race (Bruce Graham’s White Guy on a Bus).
Another recent American example was Eleanor Burgess’s 2018 play The Niceties about a clash between an African-American student and her white professor over her college paper about slavery. In giving both sides of the academic divide its due (speaking of her Eastern European roots, the professor says, “Poland in the 1770s was being partitioned… it was being wiped off the map, and I read books about Catherine the Great, and I do not start weeping”), the play was too even-handed for some critics in New York and London.
Pop has gone the agitprop. It’s all a far cry from the likes of late 20th century dramatic heavyweights Harold Pinter and David Hare who wore their art on their sleeve and considered it their duty to publicly loathe Margaret Thatcher.
“The new generation of playwrights are a throwback in that they want to scrutinise the issues of the day without going overboard on messaging,” says one leading West End producer speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s partially driven by commercial realities - Enron and Serious Money flopped on Broadway and writers are encouraged by producers to write for audiences, not their left-wing mates. It’s also driven by the fact that we live in such a binary political age, where centrism is off limits. So now you go to the theatre to get away from socialism.”
In the 1990s films such as Trainspotting, The Full Monty and Brassed Off connected with the zeitgeist much more than anything on stage. Now in a Marvel-dominated movie landscape, it’s the other way round and stage, not screen, is with the headlines.
Take the film version of Laura Wade’s Posh, renamed The Riot Club, which flopped in 2014. Fittingly, since the play featured a pub getting vandalised, Wade- who wrote the film’s script- ended up trashing her own play on celluloid. At least, true to form, she didn’t publicly hold David Cameron responsible for The Riot Club’s underwhelming reception.