Originally written for Exeunt.
Against a backdrop of crisis, cuts, turmoil and disillusionment, theatre seems to be reclaiming its place as an art form at the heart of popular protest. Only a few days after the widely attacked sentencing of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, a verdict whose announcement was marked by a day of protest across the world – including an event at the Royal Court Theatre – an embryonic glimpse of this year’s new international incarnation of Theatre Uncut is seen at the Traverse Theatre. It is the sort of protest that feels rough, messy, alive.
The series of short play readings, a taste of what to expect from the full autumn event, takes place not in the auditorium but in the theatre’s bar. We are told that this is to demonstrate that these plays can be performed anywhere; the hope is that this November they will be given life by hundreds of people in village halls and cafes, pubs and community centres. Beyond this straightforward aim, the bar feels like an open, sociable space, a space where audience and performers are not divided by an invisible barrier but where we are able to feel like simply one group of people gathered together with a common interest.
Extending this united messiness, none of the work that is presented is in anything near a finished state. Everyone’s time is given free to Theatre Uncut, meaning that actors assembled from across the festival have had only one hour in which to rehearse and still clutch scripts in their hands. There is something appealingly untidy about it, lending the event a fitting air of urgency. A more slick and polished product would take something from the importance of its message; here the potency lies entirely with the writing.
The pieces that are showcased at the morning event all take differing approaches to the political stimuli, a recognition of the multiplicity of voices and perspectives to which Theatre Uncut is responding. Anders Lustgarten’s The Break Out is succinctly metaphorical. A scene between two women given the chance to escape a benign prison and offered a choice between being “comfortably miserable or scarily free”, it confronts our apathy-inducing state of comfort and the illusion of freedom that can be so easily cast.
Meanwhile Blondie, written by Royal Court Young Writers’ Programme graduate Hayley Squires and absolutely nothing to do with Debbie Harry, takes the dystopian route. Playing with the cult of personality that has dominated politics in recent years, reaching its apex with Blair’s brand of “Cool Britannia”, Squires paints a portrait of a leader elected on pure, blonde-haired appeal. The brutal lesson that this leader then teaches the country – to “get a grip” – is lacking in subtlety, but lands a few painful punches on our greedy, fiercely consumerist lack of perspective. Dire as the situation here may seem, Squires reminds us, it is much worse elsewhere.
The most striking piece of the morning, however, is Clara Brennan’s Spine. Heartbreakingly performed by Rosie Wyatt, it tells the tender story of an unlikely friendship between a frail old woman and a teenage girl, while also writing something of a love letter to our dying libraries. It is a delicately multi-layered monologue, touching upon the deep and damaging cuts, the concept of political power and the idea that there is “nothing more terrifying than a teenager with something to say”, but its primary cry is one for compassion. Politics has forgotten people, something that this deeply moving piece does not allow us to do for a moment.
The morning is closed by two pieces even more ad hoc than the rest. In recognition of the Pussy Riot trial that has provoked so much protest around the world, and as a sort of epilogue to the event at the Royal Court at which the defendants’ testimonies were read, three actresses pull on balaclavas while we listen to the sentencing of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich. This is then followed by a rapid response piece by David Greig, written over a matter of days and inspired by recent news. This move towards immediacy is one which helps to solidify the ideas that have been floating shapelessly around the room, firmly reminding us that this is an event connected to and speaking out against very real problems.
But there is also an awareness that this is not enough. Sitting in a room listening to and talking about political issues is not quite action in itself. As Marco Canale’s candid monologueThe Birth of My Violence recognises, putting pen to paper instead of placard can be interpreted as an act of cowardice, an evasion of genuine action in favour of weak intellectualising, and perhaps it is.
What Theatre Uncut lacks in this current presentation is what makes it what it is: the element of mass protest. Performed in a closed space to a few dozen gathered people, these pieces can feel like cursory gestures. But when taken ownership of by people all over the country in a unified raising of voices, these short plays have the power to be much, much more.