Revolution Square: Thoughts on a Process

“Russia is a very unexplored political situation”. Until I hear these words from Jericho House‘s artistic director Jonathan Holmes, it is not an omission that I’ve particularly noticed, but the moment the statement is spoken I realise that it’s true. There remains an enduring fascination with Cold War era politics and the Soviet Union, but post-1990s Russian politics has taken a back seat in our concerns. This is something that Jericho House’s new project, Revolution Square, hopes to begin to change.

Although he has nurtured an interest in Russian politics and culture for several years, Holmes did not find a way into discussions about the situation – at least not discussions on the stage – until last December’s mass protests on the streets of Moscow against alleged fraud in the country’s parliamentary elections. “Suddenly, because of what else was happening in the world, I thought, ‘we need to do a show’,” Holmes tells me. “Then we knew we had two months to put something together because of the elections in March – in theatrical terms, that’s no time at all.”

The result, thanks to a collaboration with the Bush Theatre, has been a hectic week-long rehearsal process, to be followed by a week of scratch performances at the theatre. As we sit in the cosy cafe of the Bush’s new residence on the final day of rehearsals, Holmes explains that there was no other choice than to pull something together in this hasty fashion; even the script was not finished until a matter of days ago. “We couldn’t really put it together until we knew what the situation around the election was – not necessarily the result, because we could predict that Putin would get in, but it was just knowing what else was going to happen and leaving room to factor that in. It really has all come together over a period of ten days.”

During rehearsals over the past week, Holmes has worked closely and collaboratively with the three actors appearing in the piece, two of whom know Russia very well, a knowledge that has fed into the piece that will now be performed. Rather than existing as a fully-formed script before rehearsals began, Revolution Square has taken shape over the course of rehearsals, moulded into form by various layers of meaning, character and narrative from Holmes and his team. It seems to me an organic, flexible way of working.

“What’s interesting is that notions of character and narrative come very much more to the forefront,” Holmes reflects on the process. He was keen that, rather than the performers “acting as mouthpieces for different perspectives”, the play should be character driven, but this has proved to be a challenge with so little time at their disposal to discover these characters. It has entailed, however, a re-learning of the dramatic craft for all involved. “You start to evaluate these strategies for writing and you learn what’s useful and what’s not, what’s there for traditional reasons and what’s genuinely helpful,” says Holmes. “You’re reinventing the wheel, but in a very healthy way.”

This sort of quick-fire response and breathless rehearsal process raises questions about the way in which theatre responds to current events. Urgent topicality is a trend that has been on the rise in British theatre, from the Tricycle’s verbatim plays to Theatre503’s response to the hacking scandal. “It’s become quite a feature of British theatrical life,” Holmes agrees, “and that in itself raises challenges about what form that takes. Is it possible to create a play that’s quite nuanced and subtle and has all the things you want from a good play, but is also responding quickly? That’s something that I think British theatre is struggling with at the minute, and it’s nice to be part of that debate.”

What stands out about Jericho House’s response is that it is a debate, a true conversation. This is not a closed, blinkered process with a clear end goal or one specific political statement that it is setting out to make. Over the next few days, Holmes and his team are inviting audiences to be as vocal as they like, hosting post-show discussions, handing out feedback forms like candy and welcoming emails with suggestions. Holmes hopes that they will go away with lots of material to eventually make into a longer, finished show that has been informed by multiple perspectives.

“What’s important for all plays, but particularly for plays that are striving to be topical, is that you get a very clear set of responses – as many as possible from as many audiences as possible – so that you can factor those in,” says Holmes. “If you’re writing a play that wants to have a conversation with people, have the conversation as even-handedly as possible. I’ve resisted drawing too many conclusions, because it’s a work in progress and I want to see what people say.”

It strikes me that this is perhaps one of the best ways to approach current events and issues that sweep along in their wake a whole storm of different opinions and perspectives; a piece of theatre can let itself be carried on those gusts rather than obstinately trying to fight a route through them. By the time Revolution Square is finished, it will have been influenced by the immediate witnesses Holmes spoke to in his initial journalistic hunt for information, by the actors involved (and in the case of two of these actors, by their own experiences of Russia) and by numerous audience members, whose reactions will no doubt be coloured by Western culture and attitudes, giving the piece a rich and varied flavour that is hopefully far more representative of actual experience and reactions than one authorial voice could ever be.

Holmes also hopes that this piece will have resonance beyond the current situation in Russia. “The conversations about developments in capitalism, about financial crisis, about the role of religion, about individuals versus the state, about idealism and cynicism, about apathy – all of those things are relevant to us,” he explains. “It’s about producing something that I think is relevant to the audience here, but that is very specific to the situation in Moscow also. It’s about being timely and universal at the same time.”

As Holmes puts it, Revolution Square is ultimately about “seeing the bigger picture”. This widening of the lens applies both to the resonance of Russian politics for the rest of the world and to the myriad of responses that Holmes is inviting to richen and enhance his creation. I personally look forward to adding my perspective to that picture when I get to see the first snapshot later this week.

Revolution Square is being performed every evening this week (12 – 17 March) at the Bush Theatre, followed by post-show discussions. Check back for more thoughts on the process on Thursday after I have seen the show.

Topical or Typical? Responsive Theatre Programming

I think most of us can agree that, when it wants to, theatre as an art form is pretty good at responding. A response can, of course, mean many things, from passive acknowledgement to probing investigation to active retort. Think only of the Tricycle Theatre’s renowned verbatim plays, the most recent example being its analysis of last summer’s riots, or of the nationwide movement initiated by Theatre Uncut following the coalition government’s Spending Review. One thing that theatre is generally considered to be capable of doing and doing well is responding to the world around us.

But I wonder if sometimes it is responding merely for the sake of responding. This is not a thought that has newly occurred to me; I’ve written in the past about the ways in which theatre responds to current events and about whether it exploits topical subjects to create intriguing drama. In that case I concluded that while there may be different ways of writing in response to current events and issues, there is not necessarily anything wrong with using these as a creative springboard and that in fact it can result in thought-provoking, compelling plays. What if, however, self-labelled ‘topical’ theatre is not really responding at all?

I quoted Simon Stephens’ Bruntwood Prize launch speech in that previous article, but it is worth referencing again, not least because Stephens speaks extremely articulately about his craft and about the wider world of theatre. In a climate where theatres could very well take a ‘more tentative approach to programming’, Stephens sees the Bruntwood Prize as an opportunity for playwrights to write those challenging, truly responsive plays that might not otherwise get heard, describing the competition as ‘a clarion call to all playwrights’.

Perhaps the same clarion call ought to be extended to the theatre industry as a whole. It is undoubtedly a difficult time and despite the many challenges faced by the sector there are still lots of interesting, responsive conversations going on. But my worry is that some theatre which is masquerading under the guise of being incisively topical really has little new to say and that its connection to current affairs is being used as a sort of self-congratulating mask (or, if I was to be particularly cynical, that it is piggy-backing on sensationalist hype).

The one current issue that particularly sparked these thoughts was the Leveson Inquiry and the debate about press practices that continues to rumble on. While theatre was extraordinarily speedy in formulating responses to the spending cuts and the summer riots (in the case of the latter, it was quicker even than any official response), the reaction to the phone-hacking scandal has been sluggish by comparison. Although Theatre503’s Hacked and now a revival of Doug Lucie’s media corruption play The Shallow End at the Southwark Playhouse have seized on the subject matter, we have yet to see anything vaguely resembling a full dramatic dissection.

Hacked was perhaps, ironically, hampered by the rapidity of its conception. Put together in the immediate aftermath of the phone-hacking scandal, it used the provocative and novel (if slightly gimmicky) idea of hacking the phones of six volunteers to create six short plays. The brief to the playwrights was vague, but this was a piece that, by the free admission of its curators, did not want to deal too directly with the causes and ramifications of a scandal that was still emerging.

This reticence to begin heavily analysing an issue which was still very blurred is wholly understandable, but there is an argument that this piece of theatre might have been more valuable had it waited a little longer. That said, some of the short plays did grapple with the troubling implications of the News of the World fallout, particularly Matt Hartley’s satirical take on the dangers of interpretation and Dawn King’s entertaining consideration of privacy. Unfortunately, there was a far from consistent focus and an overall sense that this was skirting around the big questions.

The Shallow End, meanwhile, is clearly a different matter, having been written in 1997, long before the phone-hacking revelations. However, I wonder what the thought process was behind reviving this now, aside from its obvious resonance with today’s press. Yes, Doug Lucie’s satire predicted the media corruption that has now been exposed, but it reveals and asks very little about its causes. As I put it in my review, this feels like ‘sloppily topical programming’. The intention behind the revival is understandable, but its effect is ultimately disappointing.

What would be truly interesting, and what theatre has the capacity to do in a way in which other forums don’t, would be to get to the real crux of the matter, the deep-rooted causes behind the faces that get slapped on front covers. What is it that convinces an ordinary person to brutally invade the privacy of another individual? What is the psychological need that drives the insatiable demand for tabloid gossip? The phone-hacking scandal is a frightening phenomenon because so many people are so complicit. This is not just about headlines; this is a deeply human issue that could be intelligently explored by one of the most human of all art forms. But perhaps the play that really scrubs away at the grime to get to the heart of the issue is just too challenging for today.

Returning once again to Simon Stephens, the playwright recently claimed that the recession has made British theatregoers more conservative. Speaking to Aleks Sierz for Theatrevoice, Stephens said: ‘I think people’s taste for theatre, in the past three years, has shifted more towards the commercial and the accessible’. Maybe, in the end, it is this shift in attitude that we have to thank for all this dancing around the real issues. Has the recession and growing conservatism among audiences resulted in an appetite for the topical without the challenging?