Editors' Blog: Is agitprop back in fashion?Date: 13 February 2013
I've used the word 'agitprop' in several recent reviews - most recently Sour Lips at Ovalhouse and Money the Game Show at the Bush - which prompts me to ask whether this most 20th century of genres is undergoing a resurgence.
I studied agitprop (short for agitation propaganda) as part of my drama degree and at the time - roughly ten years ago - it was considered something of a relic of recent history.
Productions such as Joan Littlewood's Oh, What a Lovely War! (soon to be revived at its original home Theatre Royal Stratford East) and John McGrath's The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil epitomised the boom in political theatre as the social tectonic plates shifted in the wake of World War Two.
At the time I studied it, the issues agitprop plays typically dealt with - recession, right wing government, extreme poverty - seemed remote, and it was no surprise the theatrical landscape had become more concerned with the personal than the political.
But now, as austerity bites and we find ourselves entering yet another year of recession, the focus has most definitely shifted back.
Last week at the Bush I was struck by the similarities between Clare Duffy's Money the Game Show (pictured) - in which 10,000 pound coins are fought over by two competing teams - and much of the 1970s and 80s work I studied at university.
Using such a stark device as an ITV-style gameshow to illustrate the banking collapse is pure agitprop, while its central characters - two former bankers - are little but siphons for an argument (in this case, that money is a game sustained only by our belief in its existence).
And this is the latest in a tidal wave of explicitly political dramas, not all of them confined to the fringe - David Hare's The Power of Yes, Lucy Prebble's Enron and even Laura Wade's Posh all strike me as evidence that in recent years the sleeping giant of theatrical agitprop in this country has begun to rage again (and I'm sure many would argue it never went away).
But a word of warning. Political theatre in the wrong hands can quickly turn to cliche and do no favours at all to either the message being delivered or the medium being used to deliver it. This notion was neatly summarised by Simon Stephens in our recent interview, when he explained that he was fascinated by the idea of whether "optimism is radical"; in other words, whether staging stories of hope is the bravest action of all when times are tough.