Originally published by Culture Wars
Barney Norris asks why Maggie is such a current issue in the arts.
An interesting excavation has been taking place in theatre, on television and in film over the last year – the divisive figure of Margaret Thatcher has returned to our screens and stages, emerging once more at the forefront of the cultural and conversational agenda. Lindsay Duncan, Andrea Riseborough and Meryl Streep have all given readings, investigating the human story behind a woman who, for decades, has stood for so much as a symbol rather than an individual. Thatcher is, in many ways, a character of Shakespearean scale – embodying whole worlds in what she means to different people and dominating the stage of her generation. Now, her credentials as a Shakespearean figure have been enhanced by a significantly expanded performance history. Streep’s performance in THE IRON LADY, in particular, was anticipated in much the same way as David Tennant’s, Jude Law’s, or Michael Sheen’s Hamlets: what would she do with the story? What would she bring to the role? Thatcher, like a character in a play, can’t be viewed in isolation: we have to see her in relation to other people’s visions and revisions.
On stage, we have been reminded of her function as symbol by Out of Joint’s revival of TOP GIRLS, Caryl Churchill’s extraordinary play. In TOP GIRLS, Thatcher becomes an idea, an uncrossable distance between two sisters whose life choices have driven them very far apart. Robert Holman’s play MAKING NOISE QUIETLY, soon to be directed by Peter Gill at the Donmar Warehouse, also looks at her impact on ordinary lives. And in my new play MISSING, which opens next week at the Tristan Bates Theatre, Thatcher plays a similar role – MISSING tells the story of two brothers, Luke and Andy, who have been born into empty lives and are growing up sharing a bedroom in 1980s England. As in TOP GIRLS, Thatcher is mentioned only once – but she hangs over the room they share and the place they are looking to escape, the weather of their lives, the force that acts on the brothers. I have set out to explore Thatcher as a symbol, draw on the associations she prompts in people, and examine the atmosphere she brought down on Britain in the 1980s: and at a time when, across the arts, other organisations have been doing the same thing, it is interesting to ask why this is a relevant study to make now.
Investigating the legacy of Margaret Thatcher may seem, at first, to be a retreat from engaging with modern politics, but I believe exactly the opposite is taking place when contemporary artists turn to her. One way of understanding the present is to interrogate the past. In the more objective light of hindsight, patterns can be observed in earlier events which, if we pay them attention, can teach us about our now. I have written a play that happens in the shadow of Thatcher because I hope it can be an effective way of treating the shadow I myself live in – that of recession, social fragmentation, reduced opportunities for ordinary people and a state that is withdrawing from the people who need it like an ebb tide. By looking at another time when the tide was going our on our society, I hope I can provide new perspective and depth to our experience of what is happening in the world now: not only because Britain under Thatcher suffered similar violence from the state, but because the violence being done to us now is happening itself in the shadow of Thatcher. The politics she espoused, continued by the New Labour project of City-worshipping and brought back into the light by the policies of this present government, are acting on us every day; to examine her influence, the ideas she stands for, therefore seems vitally relevant to me.
Shakespeare recognised the value of history as a way of looking at society. In Hamlet, he examined a man who believed his family were damned because his uncle had married his father’s wife after his father’s death, an act outlawed in the Book of Common Prayer at the time Shakespeare was writing. This was a radical piece of political engagement, when one considers that Henry VIII, father of the monarch in the year of Hamlet’s writing, Elizabeth I, had done exactly the same thing, and it was only possible to make such comments through placing them in another situation. In this light, Margaret Thatcher comes to seem even more like a Shakespearean character: a figure from history, used to say something about our own time, allowing more to be spoken by putting the action at one remove.
MISSING runs at the Tristan Bates Theatre from Tuesday, January 31st – Saturday, February 25th, 19:30, Sunday performances 16:00. Book online through www.tristanbatestheatre.co.uk, email [email protected] or call 020 7240 6283.