Theatre and Argument

Originally published by A Younger Theatre

Barney Norris explores the ways in which theatre can contribute to political debate.

I got into theatre for the politics. When I was fourteen someone bought me a copy of Simon Callow’s book, Being an Actor. In the book Callow described a company called Joint Stock which he had worked for. The company had made work with a political sensibility – a play called THE SPEAKERS based on a book by Heathcote Williams, about the people at Speaker’s Corner; a play called FANSHEN by David Hare that examined land reform in rural post-revolutionary China – and the way Callow told it, it seemed like the most vital, important thing anyone had ever done. I dreamed up a world in which theatre really mattered: where it wasn’t just a form of entertainment, which was all I saw around me in my own life, but the place where the most important points of the day were raised and interrogated. I imagined a world where theatre brought news, and was a cutting edge, a conscience. This world was the whirl of politically conscious theatre Callow seemed to have inhabited the seventies, and it was full of placards and touring theatre companies staving off bankruptcy from day to day.

As the years passed and I began to get involved with the theatre of today, I struggled to keep my dream alive. The companies that toured from factory to factory were thin on the ground in my world, if they existed at all – there weren’t as many factories to tour to, and the heart seemed to have gone out of the ‘poor theatre’ aesthetic that had seemed so glamorous to the fourteen-year-old me. I dreamed of having a company that could make that kind of work, but couldn’t find the artists who would be willing to join me.

In 2011, I was faced with another challenge. The Arab Spring saw revolution sweep across the globe, and in the face of the pace of events, David Hare, who had been at the forefront of everything I idealised about 70s theatre, said in an interview that events had left him feeling unsure of what to write. I felt the same about my own work – how could I say anything that mattered, that was relevant, in the face of a worldwide revolutionary movement? And moreover, how could I be a cutting edge in an age when the Internet and Twitter meant theatre could only ever reheat old news? I began to wonder whether the lack of enthusiasm for my four-men-in-a-van touring dream wasn’t to do with my not having met the right people, but with having the wrong idea. Perhaps an invasive theatre wasn’t what people needed now.

Next week, my play MISSING opens at the Tristan Bates Theatre. I finished the play while I was asking myself these questions about how theatre could be relevant in a political discourse – because I think now, at a time when our society and the whole world seems to be rocking, it is vital that theatre should be politically engaged – and this play is an attempt to use theatre to fulfil a different role to the one I used to imagine. MISSING doesn’t exist to shout at anyone – it seeks to give depth, and life, and perspective to a story we are all living already, to create a space in which an audience have room to reflect on the events pressing in on them in their daily lives.

I am not imagining an argumentative theatre any more. I am trying to imagine a portrait gallery, a place where pictures can be looked at that speak to you, not directly or argumentatively, but by virtue of their content. In imagining this gallery I thought of the plays of D.H.Lawrence and Franz Xaver Kroetz – exquisite portraits of people living their ordinary lives that passed no comment on the lives depicted, but asked us to pay them attention, quietly insisting these were important people we could learn from by putting them on a stage in front of us. I am also trying to imagine an echo chamber – a space that doesn’t offer any sound of its own, but allows an audience room to interrogate their own sounds, their own opinions. I thought of two great Royal Court plays, Richard Bean’s HARVEST and Jez Butterworth’s JERUSALEM, which both, for me, had interrogated Englishness without ever forcing the issue, or drawing a conclusion – they had presented a body of evidence, played it before an audience, and asked the thoughts in the auditorium to play back across them.

MISSING tells the story of two brothers, Luke and Andy, who are growing up sharing a bedroom under Thatcher in 1980s England. It’s my aim to make people think about their lives without shouting at them – to open a world, and let an audience explore it. The play tries to do something I think theatre is uniquely placed to do – giving depth to life, asking for people to fill in the blanks of a story, an argument, an idea. It’s subtler and quieter than the plays I used to dream of making – but I hope that means people might listen more closely. In a world where we all know the latest news, all the time, perhaps the most effective political role the theatre can play is to take an audience away from their lives for a short while, and ask them to think about what they’re doing with them.

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.

 

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