[Thought this might be of interest to people who missed it first time round – the latest installment of my semi-regular column for The Stage, examining some of the ideas and issues circulating around unconventional and experimental theatre]
Only weeks ago there were students marching through the streets of my city. Elsewhere, political decisions continue to be announced that draw similar levels of hostility and incredulity. In this tumultuous climate, theatre inevitably finds its own response – offering itself not simply as entertainment but as a political voice. So, it’s worth asking where and in what form can politics be found embedded in experimental work.
What do we mean by ‘politics’. The root of the word is polis – the body of people that make up the city state. We are the politics, the network of communities and interactions that constitute our daily lives – the great, shifting ocean of people that make up this country. Westminster may steal the headlines but it should no more represent the extent of our understanding of the political than The Apprentice represents the extent of our understanding of business, or Valentine’s Day our understanding of love.
In its haste to represent what is deemed to be politically important (war, scandal, the big characters, the biggest decisions) theatre can often forget that it too is a political entity. The way that we choose to bring people together and for what purpose are deeply political decisions. Theatre is a form of community and consequently an important expression of the way we as a society choose to live. As such, theatre is always political, whether it intends to be or not. Indeed, sometimes the politics embedded in how we make theatre can be quite contradictory to that espoused from the stage.
Experimental theatre is very often engaged with these kinds of understandings of what politics in theatre is. It is a politics that does not wear its rosette on its sleeve, but is instead embedded in the form of the event itself. It is implicitly an exploration of how and why we choose to come together – an attentiveness to the political decisions embedded in our everyday actions and interrelations. A theatre that doesn’t just talk about society but embodies it in the structure of the event, in the relationship between the audience and the performers and the surrounding world. It is a theatre that at its very best invites us to experience that world in a different way.
I’m thinking here about work such as that made by acclaimed interactive performance collective Blast Theory. Games that animate our movement through the city and our relationship with its other inhabitants. In Rider Spoke for example, the city becomes a network of stories shared by other participants, the streets are re-imagined not as concrete and glass belonging to the powerful, but as a site of actions and interactions that reclaim the urban landscape for those that experience it. We are reminded that we produce the city in the use we make of it, and that consequently the power to re-imagine that place also resides with us.
I’m thinking also of the very different work of Tim Crouch, who delicately and thoughtfully unpicks the strategies by which the powerful represent the weak, both in theatre and by extension within the world beyond it, and how we, the audience, are complicit in the sometimes brutal acts of appropriation involved in that. Or the work of Bristol-based company Action Hero, who in their earnest yet sardonic re-enactments of old Western movies and dardedevil stunts create a hand-made mythology that recreates through performance our complicated relationship to iconic figures of adoration and power.
Live theatre is a beautiful and strange thing. The form it takes can render the most serious subject frivolous and the most trivial of ideas a powerful political gesture. In experimenting in form many artists are implicitly experimenting in politics, finding new ways their work can embody important questions about the way we relate to each other and the structures of power that surround us.