Certainly, the past year has been punctuated by some remarkable plays and the impressive bursts of new theatre writing in 2009 look set to continue this year. Many upcoming plays will directly engage with how the recession is affecting ordinary people.
Bola Agbaje returns to the Royal Court in February with her second play, Off the Endz, which examines social mobility in an age of working class people being shackled with huge debt. Anupama Chandrasekhar’s Disconnect looks at the situation of call centre workers in India, while Soho Theatre will stage a new play in March called Gambling, examining debt and addiction.
Does this constitute a theatrical “golden age”? Taken literally, it may do – box office cash registers seem to have been ringing merrily. In particular, Lawson implies, the usually moribund commercial West End is being reinvigorated by transfers of new writing from the fringe. Both Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem and Lucy Prebble’s Enron, major fringe successes last year, are set for big commercial productions in 2010. Looked at in reverse, the tantalising prospect of profitable transfers must certainly be affecting the production of work in the subsidised sector – even more so with the squeeze on Arts Council funding.
Yet there are signs that all is not well in theatreland. There is a tacit admission that theatre in 2009 was not politically challenging. Take this from Jane Horrocks: “We’ve had nothing to rail against under Labour – perhaps if we get a Tory government we’ll see more agitprop.” Perhaps Labour’s seemingly endless attacks on ordinary people have left her Equity-protected pay packet undented.
One example of the trend is particularly illustrative. Lucy Prebble’s Enron used the narrative of Enron’s collapse in 2001 as the basis for a theatrical explanation of the current financial crisis. The first I heard of Prebble was in an interview in the London Evening Standard shortly before Enron opened. It began, “Lucy Prebble, 28, is a pretty Pinter.”
Enron itself is an impressive piece of work. Yet, for all its kaleidoscopic vibrancy, it was at its weakest when reflecting on the corporate folly it documented. Prebble brilliantly demonstrated the insanity of the system, but lacked a vocabulary to show how the madness could be challenged.
The play’s narrative was also steeped in sexism, featuring only a handful of women, who were marginalised and subject to constant sexist jibes. If Enron was the pinnacle of political theatre in 2009 there is cause for concern. Prebble’s own view is illuminating: “The reason British theatre is booming is that people who go to the theatre – the upper middle classes – actually have more disposable income than before.”
The political vacuity at the heart of even the best new productions means that it is becoming entirely about “bums on seats” – therefore playing for the cash of the affluent. More worryingly, rather than being challenged, the sickness of the system is blithely accepted.
Exciting things certainly happened in 2009, and may continue to do so. Yet the promise of radical theatre able to rail against the Tories after the election rings hollow. In the face of tight (and tightening) funding, British theatre is in danger of becoming accommodationist – profitable yet politically impotent.
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