Othniel Smith reviews Theatre Uncut’s Power Plays, short plays from emerging playwrights which aim to tackle political and social issues.
If I paraphrase legendary dramatist David Mamet correctly, the problem with conventional, issues-based political theatre is at least three-fold: it is inevitably undramatic since it contains no surprises; it denies the multifacetedness of real-world situations; and since it will play exclusively to people who agree with the points it is trying to make, it achieves nothing other than to compound audience members’ self-satisfaction at holding the “correct” opinions.
Theatre Uncut, however, make a virtue of exploiting this sense of solidarity. Every year since 2011, they have commissioned several writers to come up with short pieces, on social and political themes, designed to be downloaded, rights-free, and performed across the world, as part of “theatrical mass action events”. In past years, playwrights of the stature of David Greig, Caryl Churchill, Jack Thorne and Neil LaBute have become involved.
The impetus for the first tranche of plays was the beginning of the U.K. coalition government’s austerity agenda. The 2018 programme, dubbed Power Plays, and presumably conceptualised as a response to the rise of Donald Trump, and the #MeToo movement, focusses on gender politics, with an all-female cadre of writers.
The presentation of rehearsed readings in Cardiff’s The Other Room Theatre (as I understand it, the first Theatre Uncut event to be staged in Wales), taking place on two nights in late June, also gave the floor exclusively to female directors.
In previous years, the plays have only been available to download for a few weeks. The current collection, however, will be freely obtainable until the end of 2018. Since the aim is for theatre companies to continue put them on at fund-raising events, it would be unhelpful for any review to give away too much narrative detail: thus the following brief notes contain as few spoilers as possible.
First up was Cordelia Lynn’s Confessions (directed by Becca Lidstone, featuring Susan Monkton and Tobias Weatherburn) – a clever two-hander with a palindromic structure, playing on themes of abuse, consent and mutuality within relationships.
A Coin in Someone Else’s Pocket by Suhaiymah Manzoor Khan featured Umulkhayr Mohamed (who also directed, alongside Radha Patel), as a young Muslim woman who has become a media spokesperson for moderate Islam, musing on the inherent contradictions and compromises therein – a charming and bravely off-book performance from an apparently non-professional performer.
Atiha Sen Gupta’s Who Runs The World (directed by Siobhan Lynn Brennan) featured Gareth Tempest as an outspoken, right-wing government minister who undergoes an instructive body-swap with Natasha Simone’s black waitress. This was a piece which, I felt, might have benefited from a longer running-time in which to explore the implications of shifted perspectives on either side of the fence.
Following the interval, there came perhaps the most thematically well-worn playlet – Vivienne Franzmann’s Nobody (directed by Bridget Keehan), a tale of symbolic rebellion at a girls’ school, with Olivia Marcus as the convention-defying pupil giving headteacher Alex Murdoch a hard time, as her more compliant fellow students (Natasha Simone and Lynwen Haf Roberts) listen and learn.
In Sabrina Mahfouz’s playful, discursive, futuristic The Power Of Plumbing (director: Cassidy Howard-Kemp), an expert female plumber – a spirited performance from Josephine Partridge – reflected on her position of power in a reconfigured world, flanked by male eye-candy (Nicholas Sturrock and Charlie Morgan).
Finally came Sharon Clark’s Mortar (directed by Angharad Lee), a take on the idea of landlords requesting sexual services in lieu of rent, with each party – Lynwen Haf Roberts and Gareth Tempest – harbouring a different notion of the precise nature of the liaison. This was the piece I found most satisfying; reflecting the tone of the evening as a whole – nuanced rather than confrontational, and disturbingly easy to relate to.
Producer Mike Leitch’s selection and sequencing of pieces (the only one of the commissioned works we didn’t see was a play by Niellah Arboine) made a virtue of their stylistic diversity; and, needless to say, the performances were uniformly strong. While, given the writers involved, one might have expected a tone of raw anger, I felt instead that the prevailing mood was bemusement – although, since I missed the post-show discussion, I cannot confirm that this was the general audience viewpoint.
In conjunction with London’s Young Vic, Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, and Cardiff’s Sherman, Theatre Uncut is currently inviting entries for a political playwriting award, aimed at unearthing the next generation of dramatists producing “stories that explore society”. While I suspect that it would be quite hard to find playwrights whose work didn’t claim to explore society, the humour, obliqueness and (for the most part) subtlety displayed by the 2018 Power Plays, raises the expectation that successful submissions may avoid Mamet’s bear-traps.
To download the scripts for Power Plays, and for further information about the Theatre Uncut Political Playwriting Award go to: https://theatreuncut.com/
Recommended for you: Marine Furet reviews National Theatre Wales’s Constellation Street, part of their Network programme of digital work that was launched in response to the COVID-19 lockdown, and finds a play that is successful in mixing gritty social realism and tragedy through four dramatic monologues.