Theatre in Dark Times

2018 was a difficult year for many people for many reasons – Brexit, the Windrush Scandal, Trump and whatever the hell is happening with the UK Government right now. So how can theatre support us and keep us going in these strange days?

Feature by Amy Taylor | 07 Jan 2019

It would be an understatement to say that we live in strange times, but the main thing about these weird days is that by the time this piece is published, everything could have changed – such is the news cycle, and the nature of the modern world. But when change is the only constant, how can theatre support us while we work towards a better world? We asked a collection of theatremakers if there’s a piece of theatre, or a quote that they find themselves reaching for during uncertain times.

The two choices of the The Lyceum’s Artistic Director David Greig appear to almost perfectly sum up the current political climate. “Well, I’m tempted to say that the current political moment in the UK most brings to mind my own adaptation of Touching The Void, when Joe Simpson is crawling across eight miles of treacherous glacier with a broken leg. The line of dialogue he says is ‘Aaaaaaarrghhhhhhhh!’, over and over and over again.

“But, truly, the play that most captures Donald Trump’s USA for me is Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry. Ubu, the child monster creature who bullies his wife and is obsessed with ‘cack’, feels like a strangle prescient portrait of the current president.”

For writer, performer and director Annie George, a line from the character Lincoln in Topdog/Underdog – the 2001 play by Suzan Lori-Parks, the first African-American woman playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize – keeps coming to mind: ‘People like they historical shit in a certain way.  They like it to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming.’

George explains: “It’s a powerful, theatrically rich and brilliantly written play about family, identity, duality... about two African-American brothers, Lincoln and Booth, one who, in whiteface, is an Abraham Lincoln impersonator, and the other a petty thief.

“The quote talks about the way people are more comfortable with a history which is sanitised, that allows them to disassociate with reality, and become numb to the pain of other people. That’s exactly why people or politicians should be forced to experience the effects of their hatred or policies – austerity, war, torture etc.”

“I am struggling with hope," begins writer and performer Hannah Lavery, "but theatre has always been where I have gone when I need help to figure shit out.” Lavery turns to Brian Friel’s 1980 play Translations, which she read in university and saw at the National Theatre in 2018. “I am turning more and more to texts that I know," she explains, "but this play... has always left me reeling.

“My husband had studied the play at school in Northern Ireland and I read it as part of a course at university, and so it was, for both of us, a play that only existed until that moment on the page and in our imaginations. To see it come alive was always then going to be thrilling, but why I talk of it in this context is it revealed what it is about now that terrifies me – how we have lost (or we are losing) our ability to hear each other, to see each other’s humanity.

"We are asked more and more to be deaf to the Other – to the Other’s pain, history and stories. We all experience the world differently, understanding this is vital now.”

For Kieran Hurley, the “weird and nightmarish world” of Philip Ridley’s surreal 1991 work The Pitchfork Disney has kept creeping up on him. “It’s a problematic play in some ways,” he says, “but an endlessly interesting one and it caught my imagination vividly when I first came across it, years ago now. It's a play about fear really, and there's a lot of that around these days. Maybe that's why it's on my mind.”

An example of this is one of Haley’s lines from the play that keeps coming back to Hurley: 'Don't blame me. You remember what happened last time I went to the shops. It was terrible. I was so scared.'

Our responses weren’t all bleak, and many respondents recommended plays or quotes that struck them as particularly optimistic. For the playwright and performer Jo Clifford, Pedro Calderón’s Life Is A Dream, which was first published in 1636, was her choice thanks to the line: 'The good you do is never lost. Not even in dreams.'

Meanwhile, Jackie Wylie, the Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Scotland, opted for David Greig’s 1994 response to the Balkan wars and globalisation, Europe.

“David Greig’s Europe was one of my formative theatre experiences, and one that I often think about," she explains. "I first saw it as a teenager during its original run at the Traverse. It’s such a beautiful examination of identity and migration, both intimate and global in its themes. Even more than 20 years [later], I still carry the impact of its poetic and political relevance.”

“You can’t beat scratch nights for a boost of optimism,” says Eve Nicol, a director and playwright. “It’s always a hopeful act to create something new and to want to share it with other human beings. Some of the most exciting recent shows were first seen in early forms at scratches; Little King’s Greater Belfast and Blood of the Young’s Daphne Oram’s Wonderful World of Sound. The Tron’s Outside Eyes is one of the best scratch nights, for the support it offers early career artists, the quality of care in its feedback facilitation, and its generosity in keeping the audience well wine-ed.”

“If it’s all too much and I can’t bear to leave the house, reaching the script shelf for a dose of Douglas Maxwell will always warm me up," Nicol says. “I’ve been enjoying rereading 2002’s Helmet, which celebrates the shared joy of video games.”

Meanwhile, others found comfort in their own work, such as Amal Azuddin, one of the real-life Glasgow Girls who stood up to stop a friend being deported and inspired the musical of the same name. Azuddin says: “I choose Glasgow Girls because it's not just about a story of seven school girls, but a community movement where people from all walks of life came together to fight for justice.

“In a world that seems to be filled with negativity and hate, this musical showcases the power of kindness, humanity, love and hope!”

Similarly, another real-life Glasgow Girl, Roza Salih echoed her sentiments and chose her favourite song from the musical. "When times are tough, I always think about Noreen's song in Glasgow Girls, They Are Our Weans. It keeps me going and makes me stronger to stand my ground on whatever I am campaigning on... as Scotland is my home and I have been welcomed here.”

“I think that art in general responds to dark times well,” says Gary McNair. “Arguably, theatre does this most powerfully as it is an immediate, shared space where you can’t escape the anger of the world around us.

“We share the space with the audience that is living through the shite outside and offer a space of reflection, fantasy and hope.”

Touching the Void, Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, 24 Jan-16 Feb
Glasgow Girls, King's Theatre, Glasgow, 15-19 Jan; King's Theatre, Edinburgh, 23-26 Jan; Perth Theatre, 30 Jan-3 Feb; Eden Court, Inverness, 7-9 Feb