Mayfesto: It's a Dead Liberty and Everything Between Us

If we want to rescue politics from the political classes, go to the theatre

Article by Gareth K Vile | 21 May 2011

Andy Arnold's second Mayfesto promised to be less political than its debut last year: fortunately, neither the artists formerly known as Wildcat nor Dave Ireland were listening. Ireland's Everything Between Us hits the Truth and Reconciliation process of Northern Ireland with a spot of hardcore sibling revival, while It's A Dead Liberty revives the agit-prop mogy for one last turn around the protest dancefloor dance-floor.

Ireland's premise - that the Troubles are a bit like two sisters fighting - isn't original: his fast paced two-hander and vicious humour enlivens what threatens to be a predictable trawl through the anxieties of forgiveness. Well served by the cast, he refuses to caricature his protestant heroines, lending the respectable politician a pathos and his wild-child prodigal a sharp, sexy aggression. Tales of alcoholism, casual sex, religious doubt and revenge reflect the larger political processes without ever losing their personal bite, and Ireland's script is a masterclass in brutal humour and emotional honesty. Abuse and outrageous jokes are bandied about the stage, yet when the tale turns serious, the sisters are moving and sincere.

The balance between the political and the personal is perfect. There is enough idiosyncrasy in the characters to prevent a slide into lazy allegory, while their shared history clearly places them in the front-line of Ireland's specific history. For a play to present a violent bigot as sympathetic - and a victim as much as an aggressor is bracing, and further evidence of art's ability to bring a necessary nuance to political debate.

It's A Dead Liberty is far more old school: smooth, jazzy renditions of songs that wear their left politics on their sleeve, interspersed with contemporary sketches. It's a mixed bag: a couple of songs revisit those hoary preoccupations of the 1990s and the clarity of the protest is oddly unsophisticated. The sketches. on the other hand, are resolutely modern - Alan Bisset deserves extra respect for a stunning performance of his own excellently observed deconstruction of the bastards at the Tax Payers Alliance - a conglomerate of business interests that pose as a group of concerned citizens - and the final gospel of alienation is a climatic finale. meanwhile, a series of guest stars, from Barbara Rafferty to Alistair Grey, pop up and keep the pace fast and the laughter coming.

The only problem is not with the performance, or the lyrics, of the songs. It is frightening how relevant they still remain in many cases, and the band are tight and passionate. There is a slight feeling of nostalgia here - cabaret has evolved in the past decade, and while the typical dominance of burlesque is thankfully avoided - there is much that Wildcat can learn from the new wave of cabaret. I fantasise about a collaboration between contemporary cabaret - The Creative Martyrs belting out Glasgow Smiles - and these worthy originals, or the removal of the glossy jazz sheen for a more brutal edge. John Knox Sex Club could do a number on the country and blues tinged numbers, and Holy Mountain teamed with guest singer Karen Dunbar would put the shits up Westminster far more than a cultured saxophone solo.

If we do see the wave of political work promised in the wake of the collapse of connection between the state and its citizens, both Ireland and Wildcat are good places to start. Wildcat are a reminder of the past heritage, and Ireland melds aggression and sensitivity. And if Wildcat and co aim to stick around, I challenge them to make the link with the modern scenes.

Wildcat were Scotland's famous political theatre company, and should they read this article and wish to demonstrate their continued relevance, they ought to get in touch with Winning Sperm Party or Cry Parrot, talk to the bands and arrange an album of cover versions. And dedicate to the Ramshorn, which is seriously under threat.