Theatre has long been used to make subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, political commentary. But, in the age of television, how effective is theatre as a direct tool for raising awareness of highly politicised issues?
No stranger to political statements, Amnesty International UK recently staged a world premiere, fund-raising evening of drama in support of its Get Up Sign Up! campaign to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What s On Stage correspondent Justin Somper reports on the effectiveness of Disparate Bodies....
The words 'Amnesty Benefit' do not suggest the most exciting prospect of a night at the theatre, but this performance of Disparate Bodies - a quartet of short plays - by Linda Wilkinson was a lesson against prejudice from many sides.
The event was produced by Amnesty International UK's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Network. As Wilkinson says, 'I could have written four plays and divided it up as a lesbian one, a gay one... but that's not what theatre's about.' Instead, she presents an intriguing array of characters; introduced in different environments in the first three plays and brought together in the finale.
The opening piece Let Eating Dogs... is fairly predictable fare given the context of the performance. The story concerns transsexual Leila, played with power and bravery by This Life's Amita Dhiri. It is Istanbul in 1996 and Leila is being driven out of her flat. In a particularly grisly turn of events, a corrupt policeman shoots Leila's beloved dog and attempts to feed her the still warm flesh. The play is broadly based on the experience of Ramazan Demir, a transvestite who was a guest of honour at the performance. I'm sure that Wilkinson is right when she asserts that this 'was not a shadow of what's happened to that woman' but Let Eating Dogs... just isn't great theatre.
Alchemy, the second play, is far more successful dramatically. It is a solo piece focusing on the trials of Anna's search for love in Prague, again in 1996. Amanda Ooms plays Anna with nervy beauty, delivering rich lines like 'love is such a big thing' with appropriate awe. The play gives scope for Wilkinson's gentle but precise humour. Anna makes reference to the 'Lesbian La Ronde' in which she finds herself trapped and pleads, 'somewhere out there, isn't there a woman who sees beyond the next season?' Maybe Elena is that woman, but can Anna trust anyone - least of all herself? A fuller version of this play was previously performed in Prague. The first play about lesbianism to be performed in the Czech Republic, it created a depth-charge in the audience. Wilkinson recalls people saying 'this can't be. People don't have happy endings.'
The third play, Baccarat is a heady brew in the style of Tennessee Williams. In Tuscany, street-boy Richard encounters the enigmatic Contessa whose lifestyle is based on the 'humiliation of men' she keeps in her menagerie. As with Alchemy, Wilkinson's approach to the central idea of prejudice and abuse is clever and provocative. There's a delicious air of sexual tension as Lois Baxter's silk-swathed Contessa and Dominic Taylor's ripped-jeans Richard square up to each other. Although the Contessa appears to have the upper hand, Richard just may be her equal. As Wilkinson says, 'these are two very complicated people', and it's to her credit that at the end of the piece, we're still unsure how the relationship will develop, and we don't know what motivated the Contessa to evolve her strange lifestyle.
In the last play of the quartet, Disparate Bodies, the protagonists of each piece encounter each other. The chief interest here is that far from finding unity through their suffering, Leila, Anna and Richard are quick to condemn one other. It takes the Contessa to introduce a sense of harmony.
Overall, the Contessa - a straight woman - comes over as a rather more sympathetic character than transsexual Leila, lesbian Anna and bisexual Richard. A problem in a play which is open in its aim to challenge prejudice? Not so, says Wilkinson. 'I think a lot about that character being sympathetic is to do with her age and the fact she's had a much longer journey.'
The evening was a triumph on a number of levels, not least because the cast had only come together two-and-a-half weeks before the performance. It was the first time Swedish actress Amanda Ooms had performed on stage in English. And it's no wonder that Amita Dhiri found the part of Leila 'incredibly dificult.' Dhiri, who had given birth only six weeks previously, not only had to play a transsexual who gets convincingly beaten, but to do so with the knowledge that the person who has lived this part for real was watching from the stalls.
The Albery Theatre was pretty full and the event did something to raise awareness of the work of Amnesty's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Network. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, there was scant media coverage of the performance - even in the Gay press. And even Linda Wilkinson had to concede that 'the theatre-going public are not the majority' and that the power of theatre now pales in comparison to that of TV.
Maybe that is because, whilst many contemporary playwrights square up to the sort of powerful themes addressed by Wilkinson, few do so with such ingenuity. In Alchemy and Baccarat, Wilkinson develops complex characters and situations that bring you back to the political through the personal. Says Wilkinson, 'I wanted to send the audience away entertained but provoked into thinking.' Linda, you succeeded.
For further information on the Get Up Sign Up! campaign, call Amnesty International UK on +44-171-814-6200 or visit its website.