My mother’s family is from Northern Ireland, although I was brought up in London. My grandparents – my grandfather was a Methodist minister, a farm boy from County Down – lived in Warrenpoint, just on the border with the Republic, and I spent my summers from the age of about six to sixteen at their house. The experience was a strange one. As a child, there was no sense that what was happening around you was odd: it was somehow normal to be stopped crossing the border by soldiers who pointed machine-guns at your car. Bombs exploded. There were rocket attacks on Newry Police station. My child’s mind took this all in and accepted it. But it also began to notice some odd things: I think in particular there was the gradual realisation that the world of Northern Ireland as I experienced it was nothing at all like the world portrayed in the media, or by the political establishment. And this was maybe somehow the start of a lifelong interest in the difference between “official” histories of events, and their confused and complex reality.
In my 20s I became a journalist, and in my 30s I worked as a war reporter in Liberia, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and the townships of South Africa. These experiences left me with a permanent, pathological revulsion against violence in all its forms, an abiding suspicion of those who use violence or justify violence to achieve their goals, along with a deep distrust of the machinery of formal politics and its ambiguous relationship with violence and power.
That distrust has carried over into my later career as a writer: a conviction that the formal, the neatly packaged agenda, is almost certainly wrong, and very possibly dangerous. For me, the term “political theatre” has therefore come to have a very specific meaning, which has to do with challenging the easy assumptions people make, our political or religious orthodoxies, our astonishing capacity for self-deception, those constructs we all live with, whether they are belief systems, or “constructed memories” – the things we hold to have happened, and which underpin our ideas about what is right and wrong, and even what is real.
Political theatre, in short, is about making people think, and about making people question – about using performance as a means to stimulate debate. Conversely and emphatically, it is not about marketing a political agenda.
As a writer, of course, I am pre-occupied with – or maybe obsessed by – language. That pre-occupation with language takes three forms. Firstly, as a playwright I am fascinated by the use of language to achieve what we want: language as an instrument of power, whether it’s the power of a propagandist to persuade, of a person in authority to compel, or of a liar to obscure the truth. My plays, I think, are all in one way or another about power; and the great thing about theatre, the pure thing about it maybe, is that words are the only weapons our characters have with which to achieve their goals. Secondly, I am also a linguist and a translator of other people’s plays. This is language from another angle – the astonishing discovery, when you learn to speak another language, that discourse is not just discourse: it is coloured and constrained by the actual human language in which it is expressed – that at one level, there is no such thing as a translation. Working as a translator has also brought me into direct contact with European theatre in its many forms – something I’ll come back to in a minute. The third preoccupation with language has to do with the “language of theatre:” that is with theatre’s capacity, as an art form or a medium, to communicate with an audience, and with its capacity to bring about change.
And that I think is the heart of what we are about at the theatre company I co-founded in 2003: Hydrocracker. Hydrocracker was the brainchild of a writer, a director, and two actors, with a simple, common goal. Our aim in life is to do theatre that is capable of effecting change. As it says on our website from time to time, we want more for our audiences than to sit in the dark and watch. For us, the essence of political theatre is that it is theatre which changes the minds of those who watch it. Political theatre is not the same as theatre about politics. Of course, nothing prevents political theatre and theatre about politics from overlapping. But at its heart, political theatre is theatre which finds a means – a language, indeed (that word again) – to break through the preconceptions and expectations of audiences and communicate with them directly.
And here’s a thought: in England today, it may actually be impossible to do political theatre in a theatre. The very fact that a performance is occurring in a space designated “theatre” appears to have come to limit an audience’s willingness to engage: it treats a play as a “play” that lies, as ever, in a removed space behind the infamous fourth wall. Efforts to break down that wall, which in the 1950s were at the forefront of avant-garde theatre, have become routine and familiar, to the point where we might suggest a “fifth wall” is in place: built from the audience’s self-awareness, and its awareness of the games that theatre-makers play.
In effect, I suggest that the contract between audience and play has somehow become ossified; the expectation of the audience is fundamentally to be entertained in the framework of a set of entertainment rules, and the efforts of writers, directors and actors to break through that expectation have in recent years veered in the direction of trying to shock, rather than to communicate. It doesn’t work, of course: a slice of misery is not the same as a tragedy; violence on stage is still just stage violence and audiences still sit behind their invisible wall, and they still retire to the bar to discuss the acting, or what’s for supper.
The paradox has parallels with the situation that has arisen in the world of the visual arts. Efforts to convey meaning by new means result in a spiral of increasing desperation, in which simply being “different” can become an end in its own right, and those making “art” lose sight of the need to communicate emotionally as well as intellectually. The situation is not helped, in theatre, by a tendency to confuse “new” with “raw”, or “new writing” with “young writing” which has led over two decades to a disposable culture of promoting young writers and then discarding them, because they are no longer young.
Beyond this, if we look at England in particular, it’s arguable that outside the major cities, mainstream theatre-makers have largely abandoned any attempt to perform what we would call “political” theatre. The theatre world has split in two: state-funded, or commercial, unchallenging theatre; and fringe theatre that mistakes what it is doing for something radical, but frequently does not challenge, nor subvert – but merely confirms the ideas and beliefs and biases of its natural audience. That’s the paradox of doing “theatre about politics”: you run the risk that your audience will consist of people who already agree with you.
This paradoxical situation in English theatre is very different, I think, from the situation in Ireland. It’s a very different situation from that in Europe, too. In Germany, for example, every city and town boasts a serious theatre, and each of those theatres is prepared to stage uncompromisingly avant-garde work, radical theatre and experimental pieces. In Romania, or Serbia, or Kosovo, the theatre is a place of public debate: a genuine forum in which people try to make sense of their own past. The conversation between theatre and audience is a real one – one that we in mainland Britain seem to have lost touch with.
So coming back to what we’re trying to do at Hydrocracker, therefore, I think it’s best expressed as attempts to find new languages. We don’t do site-specific theatre for its own sake, or because it’s trendy, or cheaper, or whatever. We’re not even sure it’s a useful label. We do site specific theatre first and foremost to try to cross the wall. And there are more ways than one to cross that wall.
Hydrocracker’s productions of Harold Pinter’s “The New World Order” have been staged in town halls in Brighton and London in the form, as it were of “tours” of the building. Audiences are taken from the Council Chamber on a literal journey from grandeur to depravity, ending in the cellars (and in Brighton in the actual cells) below the building. They become witnesses to scenes of torture and cruelty as they go, and because there is no formal theatre involved, they also become complicit in these scenes. “Watching” changes its meaning from passive spectating – the activity to which theatre audiences have grown accustomed – to an uncomfortable action, in which to do nothing (as audiences do) comes to have a sinister meaning.
To give a second example, when we staged a trial outing of my new play Wild Justice at the Brighton festival in May 2014, we did it not as a “piece of theatre” but as hybrid event: it was part performance, part public debate, and part workshop, with the audience as the workshop participants. Why? Because, I suppose, we are looking for a new language. The play is about revenge. And the idea for the play sprang from the sudden realisation three years ago, as I watched on television Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton watching (also on television) their special forces “taking out” Osama bin Laden, that Revenge, in its grand sense is alive and well and an enormous political force in the world today.
And yet we rarely think about it. We all have vengeful feelings, revenge happens all around us, from the petty revenges of road rage to state-sponsored assassination. Yet when you ask most people what they think revenge is, they don’t have a good answer. So in May we performed a couple of scenes, as a provocation. We stood the audience up and got them to discuss their own experiences of revenge. And we introduced a panel that featured Jo Berry, a woman called Marina Cantacuzino, who runs a charity called The Forgiveness Project, a psycho-therapist of revenge called Robin Shohet, and Mark Devenney, a philosopher from the University of Brighton. The ultimate idea behind Wild Justice is to create what we’ve called a “Revenge Tragedy for the 21st century”. What we know about revenge tragedy in its original form in this country, in the 16th century, or in Greece in the 5th century BC, is that it provoked a burning response from its audience: it was fascinating, horrific, and actual for Shakespeare’s audiences. For the ancient Athenians, it was the arguable centre of their cultural and political life. The theatre of Dionysus, on the slopes of the Acropolis, had a seating capacity of 70,000. Seventy thousand people… we can only dream. Our ambition though is to find a way to reconnect with that kind of passion. We want debate. We want to have the conversation. And we don’t think we can do it by staging a conventional play.