Working on The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning  - arguably NTW's most overtly political piece of theatre to date, I've been asking myself 'What is political theatre today?'  Is it a question of subject-matter - a campaigning play bringing an urgent issue to people's attention via a familiar medium.  Or is it as Brecht, Piscator and the 'real' John McGrath of 7:84 Theatre would have it, equally a matter of form - the shape in which a theatre piece comes - the ways in which it causes us to interact with the world.  Or is the politics of contemporary theatre more about where and who - who is represented on stage, who gets to be in the audience, where theatre takes place.  Or is a truly political theatre going to be unrecognisable as theatre at first - is the Occupy movement the truly effective political theatre of our time?  I'd love to hear your views.

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Comment by Sarah Thornton on January 11, 2012 at 1:26

Sorry to come so late to this blog but I’ve just stumbled across it and its fascinating – I hope the debate continues.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently: which way now for political theatre…

So, here’s what I’d add to the mix, a few random and not brilliantly connected thoughts.

First of all, I disagree with a couple of the bloggers here - I don’t think all theatre is political – or at least I don’t think that being political (small p) is the same as being Political (capital P) and I think what’s needed right now is definitely Political theatre with a capital P!  Yes, there’s a lot of theatre about that is superficially political, but actually does little more than assuage our conscience and function as a substitute for action (Tiffany Jenkins has a really interesting take on this, calling much of the current wave of verbatim theatre ‘therapy for the middle classes’). 

And I think there are problems inherent in trying to present radical or political theatre in a mainstream building anyway: Michael Billington talked about this yesterday, and decades ago the original John McGrath talked eloquently about how no matter how good political drama is, the very fact of staging it within the mainstream “can turn opposition into novelty”.  It’s important that that’s happening, that political stories are being told in mainstream venues, that the status quo is being challenged in these settings, but I’m not sure it’s where Political theatre can expect its next wave.  I agree with Leo, that much more interesting work is happening in different kinds of spaces.

Alan Bissett’s recent call for a return to agit prop ( is really interesting (although the fact that he was introduced at the beginning of NTS’s debate on political theatre as ‘Bank of Scotland Emerging Artist, Alan Bissett’ may cause a double take!) and I think it’s definitely time to reflect back on the most powerful and impactful theatrical forms from the past and reinvent them for our use today.  Re-reading early Boal, McGrath, even re-visiting the early Theatre Workshop and Piscator’s work there’s a real resonance with today.  While the language of debate and terms of reference have changed (we can’t comfortably talk about class war and Marxism any more, without lots of raised eyebrows) the inequality, injustice, disempowerment are the same; and this I think, is where Occupy is so interesting – it’s a voice to say that the whole system is wrong.  Fighting single issues, raising awareness of specific problems is all well and good, but when our whole system is fundamentally flawed issue-based work remains tactical when strategic change is necessary.  I believe that the main job for political theatre in 2012 is to create the space to challenge the neo-liberal myth that there is no alternative to capitalism.  I agree with John that Occupy is interesting partly because it does not yet seek to pose or be defined by an alternative, but to open the space to think, challenge and question, and takes the clear view that an other way is possible.  I don’t think that Occupy in itself is theatre (although I agree with meredydd that some aspects are quite performative), but I think it offers a lens for us to re-imagine Political theatre through.


Comment by meredydd barker on December 29, 2011 at 4:11
Comment by Gareth Clark on December 21, 2011 at 2:23

If we are discussing political theatre we have to add the work of Augusto Boal and the inspiration of Paulo Friere. Political theatre should put the onus on choice and empowerment with the objective to create change. It can be argued and it is here that all theatre has this power but whether that is political or not I'm not sure.I think we have to consider the affect of an individual on the entire machine, this story is somewhat David and Goliath in nature but with an unhappy ending looming (Brazil comes leaping to mind). I also think that Occupy are a very visual, annoying outfit to the various powers but the real damage has been potentially done by anonymous and lolz. 

Comment by Alex Murdoch on December 16, 2011 at 0:50

Agree Tom, just catching up too, great debate and can't wait to see what comes of your work on Bradley Manning.

I'm interested in Leo, Gethin and John's discussions here about where word audience comes into whether a piece of work is political or not.  I think as theatre makers we have a very powerful tool in terms of empowering people, giving voice and offering possibilities for change.  I mean powerful in terms of creating an immediate and emotional response.  

So often I find people inside the 'industry' can talk about theatre for ages without mentioning the audience - in some kinds of theatres the audience is not acknowledged at all.  I'm with Leo here - I think! - insofar as that seems a nonsense to me - and the choices I make in my work are a reaction to that.  I hope that intimacy with audience doesn't have to be confined to the small scale though... 

Gethin's point is important  - about the problem of so much theatre preaching to the converted, to people who are likely to already be engaged politically.  If we don't address who the work is for (where are you taking it/who are the audience/why and in what way do we and they engage) then it's of no more consequence than chit-chat at a dinner party.  

In terms of political theatre - for me - once you've found the context (e.g. Bradley Manning's school) and paid attention to the audience - then political with a small 'p' is the more resonant tool and more empowering territory.   That doesn't mean that theatre shouldn't be dealing with specific and current issues, raising awareness etc but often I feel I'm being told what to think, which is alienating.  Somehow that there are decisions advance...that are 'superior' to the audience's thoughts.  How do you leave space for the audience to think, be present and apply to their own world; their unique world which we can't make assumptions about?

Comment by Tom Beardshaw on December 15, 2011 at 14:33

This is a great debate - I'm just catching up. I'm thinking about how  the Bradley Manning production and how it connects to audiences, especially in the medium of the story itself, the internet. Creating spaces, provoking conversations is native to the web and the Bradley Manning and NTW18 are already intertwined online, and will grow before, during and after the live events. People creating, acting, experiencing and encountering (whether live or in virtual spaces) the show all existing on common platforms, so it isn't so much broadcasting a play as creating it within a living, breathing network of creative multimedia conversations, events, politics and people's lives. 

There are opportunities for artists, theatres and companies, and many questions about the how live performance interacts with the internet and public discourse. Both are inherently political on any level, but all the more so as live performance grounds itself in stories of communities, places and events. As theatre evolves in the multimedia global punklike changes the web is hosting, the question is how will it both create and contribute to the physical and virtual spaces in which the theatre of politics plays out.

Comment by Gethin Alderman on December 14, 2011 at 12:10

I think that all of the models below (and others not mentioned) can serve as inspiration and support when approaching theatre within a political context.  The key to it all, and perhaps the reason that political theatre is so hard to define or pigeon-hole, is that whatever is made and however it is made, the act will be informed by and a response to the event or issue in question.  This is what, for me, makes it so exciting:  you never know what to expect from political theatre as it is influenced by the event and how the individual, or group, is affected by and responds to it.  Theatre will, in my opinion, always find an appropriate way to respond whenever and however it feels that it needs to.

Comment by National Theatre Wales on December 12, 2011 at 9:59

Thanks for this thought-provoking post Gethin.  I think your example of Oedipus in Zimbabwe is really resonant - it reminded me that often the most resonant political stagings are of existing plays and often classics.  This can particularly be the case in regimes where there is extreme restriction on freedom of speech and a classic staging can come to stand for much that is unsaid publicly.  Closer to home though, a director friend commented to me on hearing of Michael Boyd's resignation from the RSC that he felt that Boyd had been responsible for one of the most significant political acts in UK theatre in our lifetime when he cast David Oyelowo as Henry VI in 2000, crowning a black actor King of England on the RSC stage for the first time.  Boyd insisted this wasn't a political reading of the play - but nonetheless it spoke volumes about the transformation and contemporary reality of Britain. Back in the 1960s and 70s, seminal alternative theatre company The Living Theatre made Antigone one of their signature pieces - using it to express the alienation from authority of an entire generation.  Interestingly for our debate, in the middle of the 1968 student riots in Paris (at a point where it genuinely looked for a time like the French government and system could be toppled) The Living Theatre, who were resident in Paris at the time, occupied the Odeon Theatre (the French National Theatre) to create an alternative space not dissimilar in structure to the spaces created by Occupy today (though with nicer seating)  These were all political acts of theatre that didn't rely on political plays per se, they were political in the way they interpreted stories and in the way they inhabited and populated theatre spaces.  Are there models here for us? 

Comment by Gethin Alderman on December 11, 2011 at 23:31

With the view that all theatre is in someway political, it is also true that theatre is always a tool in that it always has an aim, whether this be "to persuade people of a particular view and get them to act on it" or to entertain the audience.  The reason that it continues to be art is that it is, and should be, an expression of one person or group of people and is therefore likely to be biased, in the view of agitprop, or subject to taste, some people like Beckett others prefer Sondheim.


Is suppose what this debate is primarily focused on is political theatre which approaches current events in a more direct manner, such as Enron or Talking to Terrorists, Deep Cut and many other pieces of verbatim theatre or many of the plays mentioned below.


It is here that I must ask, is the Occupy movement political theatre?  In my opinion, it is not (notably a matter of taste/opinion).  There are many theatrical elements within the movement, but for me as it has no narrative drive or thematic argument that brings it together within the length of a - for want of a better word - 'conventional' play it is not theatre.  It is for this reason that before reading John's post, I had not considered it political theatre despite it being 'an expression of one person or group of people' - one of the components that I said above make something theatre.


I was very drawn, particularly, by the discussion between John and Leo about context and form.  What political theatre in the form of agitprop can sometimes be accused of is preaching to the converted or galvanising a groups views rather than encouraging and attracting new members because those who go to see it usually know what they are going to see and have chosen to see it because it aligns with their views, in the same way people chose which newspaper to read or none at all.  People who watch this form of political theatre are likely ot already be engaged politically.


This, however, might be quite different with a play like Oedipus.  Oedipus is what might be deamed a 'conventional' play - again apologies for the wording - in that it has lines, characters, is fictional, has a duration and can be performed again and again in the same way.  Many people would see this, today in the west, as a play which perhaps warns against hubris (if we want it to have a point-of-view) or is for our entertainment because one enjoys classical theatre (taste).  However, if you perform the play somewhere like Zimbabwe (as has been done in the last few years) it takes on a different slant in that it can be seen as a direct criticism of the President.  In both cases a man seen as the hero or saviour of the people who eventually brings great hardship on them due to his actions.  Here there context gives the play its meaning.  I agree with Leo in that this is true in all things but wanted to give a strong example.


For fear of clogging the blog, I will finish by saying that responses in theatre to political events are very important to me.  The provide an alternative means of understanding an event or topic to the television, the internet or newspapers.  An appreciation of all of these media when comprehending issues and events is very important and each bring different things to the table.  As an expression, I feel theatre delivers the human, personal, perhaps more abstract elements such as emotion to the fore where the other media might prioritise concrete elements such as fact and statistic.  Expression makes us human and without the human, politics, to me, becomes rather trivial.

Comment by National Theatre Wales on December 10, 2011 at 5:49

Did anyone watch the NTS debate about agitprop?  I missed it but I think it's available online.  Agitprop is an interesting angle on the political theatre debate as agitprop (agitation and propoganda) is theatre with the specific goal of creating a direct effect - to persuade people of a particular view and get them to act on it.  Does theatre become simply a tool in this case?  Is it still art? Does that matter?

Comment by National Theatre Wales on December 10, 2011 at 3:29

Sorry if I misinterpreted you Leo, I'd certainly never accuse you of running off to join the hippies (though sometimes I would quite like to join them myself...)  But I do think what you were saying about form, the relationship between performance and audience was important  - so was trying to think my way through how this related to some of the other contributions.  It's useful to hear these differing definitions/explorations of 'political theatre' - to register the differing things it can mean.  Which isn't the same as choosing a right thing that it should mean. I thought your position was arguably closer to that of the Occupy movement than, say, a more issue based campaign - creating an alternative space that questions what is around it. 

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