Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Political Theatre in Post-Thatcher Britain

This review was originally published in Contemporary Theatre Review in 2009.

In Political Theatre in Post-Thatcher Britain: New Writing 1995-2005, Amelia Howe Kritzer proposes that there has been a reinvigoration of politically engaged theatre in Britain since 1995. According to Kritzer, while the familiar 70s model of oppositional political theatre continues to hold some power, contemporary British playwrights face an altered political landscape, 'the deliberately vague surface of New Labour politics, has created an ideological vacuum that serves to disable activism and foster cynicism'. With the grand political ideologies of the past in decay, the political playwright faces a double challenge as drama 'must structure and define a political landscape, before it can stake out positions'. This problem is further complicated by the fact that the audience cannot be guaranteed to recognise the political landscape mapped out for them or the positions taken within it.

The first chapter of the book offers a whirlwind history of British political theatre and aims to define the relationship between theatre and politics. Kritzer gives a brief survey of the field, touching on issues such as audience reception and the politics of theatre spaces. She also offers a skeleton outline of the material conditions of theatre production in Britain. The rest of the book engages with specific plays from the last decade starting with Sarah Kane’s Blasted in 1995. The plays are split into groups which exhibit similar concerns, such as ‘Generational transition and the post-Thatcher working class’ or ‘Terrorism’. The plays are listed with a detailed synopsis alongside a brief consideration of their political significance.

In the second chapter, 'Generational Politics: The In-Yer-Face Plays', Kritzer claims political significance for the plays of Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill and some of their contemporaries, which Kritzer states have not previously been 'generally associated with British political drama'. The plays are identified as the work of Thatcher's children and while the playwrights 'are unable at this point to articulate political concepts', their plays 'point to the way in which this era's events and trends shaped their individual and collective political subjectivities'. Kritzer contrasts their work with that of some of their contemporaries, such as Joe Penhall and Rebecca Pritchard, who she sees as engaging with specific issues in order to raise the visibility of 'aspects of society dismissed by Thatcher' such as the mentally ill and disadvantaged young women.

The third chapter traces the reaction to the In-Yer-Face plays. Kritzer locates Caryl Churchill as creating a dialogue across the generations and surveys how other playwrights have responded to the In-Yer-Face plays’ alleged lack of direct social engagement, by engaging with issues such as multiculturalism and feminism. She sees these plays as an effort 'to take up some of the unfinished business of the 1970s movements for social change' and as laying the path for the resurgence of issue based drama in recent years. In the fifth and sixth chapters Kritzer examines this resurgence starting with The Colour of Justice at the Tricycle in 1998. She explicitly links this renewal to the election of New Labour in 1997 which 'seems to have restored the level of confidence necessary to present arguments for social and political change'. She traces the rise of documentary forms of theatre, examining examples of tribunal and verbatim theatre, including the work of Richard Norton-Taylor and David Hare. While chapter five focuses on plays grappling with domestic political issues, the sixth chapter expands out to examine how British playwrights have been highlighting issues of international concern in their work.

The fourth chapter, 'Systems of Power', is perhaps the most interesting. Here Kritzer looks at the way a political theatre might operate by examining the hegemonic ways in which power works so 'exposing these systems of power by bringing them to conscious attention'. The ground that this chapter covers is vast and whilst Kritzer points out some interesting directions, it is impossible to examine all these areas in any critical depth. For example, she explores the portrayal of religion in contemporary British theatre in a mere seven pages. This problem pervades the book as a whole. In trying to categorise the constellation of work produced by British playwrights over the last decade, Kritzer sets herself a difficult task, especially in so short a book. It is no wonder that she can offer little more than a whistle-stop tour.

Kritzer takes a playwright centric viewpoint and fails to consider the possibly that non-textual work has made any contribution, as in her opinion the 'political theatre of contemporary Britain is a theatre of words'. There are some puzzling omissions in Kritzer’s choice of playwrights. While she briefly refers to both Neilson and Crimp, their plays are notably absent from the theatrical landscape of Britain that she paints. This could be due to the fact that Kritzer's definition of a political play rests ultimately on the play's content, 'theatre is considered political if it presents or constructs a political issue or comments on what is already perceived as a political issue.' The new forms that she catalogues are seen as vehicles to deliver the political content rather than operating on a political level themselves. She briefly considers the construction of a politics of form within contemporary performance theory, including Deleuze's theatre of nonrepresentation and Lehmann's postdramatic theatre, but denies political agency to either. She goes further, claiming that 'there is no question that postmodern theory and its theatrical offshoots have played a part in delegitimizing socially activist theatre and inhibiting recent development of issue based drama.'

Political Theatre in Post-Thatcher Britain is a good introduction to the range of new writing in British theatre over the past ten years, albeit from a rather conservative viewpoint. It brings to our attention many new playwrights whose work has yet to be considered in any critical depth. However, it offers little new to the field in its study of how a political theatre might operate within the current political climate.

Amelia Howe Kritzer, Political Theatre in Post-Thatcher Britain: New Writing 1995-2005 (Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)