Monday, May 14, 2012

theatre notes.

I was reading a speech made by the playwright Dennis Kelly this morning, which left me stunned by its clarity. I must confess I am not familiar with his work, but his words kept running through my head all day long. It opens with this: "…political theatre is a complete fucking waste of time." This isn't really true, at least in my mind. The idea of art as political protest goes back thousands of years, starting with the Ancient Greeks. It has existed for as long as we have had anything to protest, often shrouded in hidden symbols or cloaked with history. Think of the Soviets, of Mikhail Bulgakov's play The Days of the Turbins, or Nikolai Erdman's The Suicide. Skip ahead a few generations to Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine, which leaps from Victorian colonialism in Africa and its collapse, to sexual repression and its release in 1970's London. Think of Pinter in his last few decades, like the roaring of a lion who cannot rest.

Kelly mentions the AIDS plays of twenty years ago - like Angels in America, specifically, or the ones I knew from the mid-90's - Love! Valour! Compassion! and Lonely Planet. The latter, written specifically for its two actors by a local playwright, had a quiet wistfulness that reminds me of Adam Mars-Jones' short stories from the height of the AIDS crisis. These plays were all born out of a wild grief and anger at this scourge that was cutting a wide swath through the gay community - I am just barely old enough to remember this - but I wonder how they will play out for the next generation, or the one after, or a hundred years from now. Will they take their places next to Shakespeare as something eternal?

The thing about a political play, like any other art of protest, is that is can't just be about the protest. If you strip away the skin and the flesh of political rhetoric, there has to be something of substance beneath it, the bones of story and emotions. It has to stand on its own merits as a work of art. It has to connect with the audience, move them, open their heart and their minds to what's being said. For one night a sea of strangers are waiting to spend two hours inside your head. It has to be beautiful. No, beautiful is the wrong word. It has to mean something.

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