When does the social critique offered by theatre collude with the governing ideology by actually reinforcing it?
Israel, where the theatre-going public is proportionately the highest per capita in the world – willingly stages work which critiques the IDF and the government’s policy and practice regarding the Palestinians. In 2007, I sat next to the Minister of Culture and watched a play about a checkpoint not thirty minutes away from the theatre at the Hebrew-Arab Theatre of Jaffa.
Does this then suggest that the theatre is actually inherently a conservative medium? How could it not be when the proposition of an emancipatory theatre ends, in reality, in the murderous actions in Jenin?
It presents the veneer of radicalism composed neatly in idea form, as lived through character and plot, whether obeying Aristotelian unities or not. Yet in every way theatre has sought to be transgressive it is systemically contained. The depth of the bourgeoisification of the medium has now eclipsed even the starkest of Greek Tragedy’s cathartic justifications. Have we confused the idea of theatre for theatre itself?
The apparent oppositional paradigm also manifests quite comfortably in London where the subsidised theatre sits so readily alongside the West End, (indeed its unconscious default setting I would argue, has aspired to emulate this commercial model – now with the Philanthropic Imperative this commodification is no longer even unconscious). Historically the image of a metropolitan fringe has reinforced the myth of counter-culturalism and hegemonic resistance, but in truth its always been a bourgeois theatre in London in the C20th. The Theatre Royal Stratford East and Littlewood also sit comfortably alongside Reith. Letting new people in through the door only impacts on the building to the degree that the superstructure is untouched in its unthinking recreation.
It is an ironic and only partially glimpsed truth that the most radical thing to happen to theatre in the mid to late nineties was in my view the enforced nomadism of the Lottery funded (re)building boom where a new dynamic was necessitated. “You’ll have to do something for your money while it’s all being (re) built” So, many of these institutional beneficiaries have been financially disastrous not only because of rank financial incompetence, but because the political status quo was simply (re-)assumed. The possibilities of disruption were merely considered vis-à-vis the bricks and mortar and the building works , not at all with regards the idea of what theatre forced into the peripatetic might now mean.
The boundaries of this conservatism have more recently been tested even further with the subsequent realisations of the National Theatres of Scotland and Wales and their (re)modelling beyond bricks and mortar institutionalisation.
Instead this is institutionalised disruption as played out across a whole sector and whole nations. Condemnation everywhere and business as usual?