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HighMinded talk at Halesworth's HighTide Festival

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Art, truth and journalism. Are they mutually exclusive? Can they be related to each other in any meaningful way? There’s nothing like putting a mixture of theatre practitioners and arts journalists in front of an audience to get the debate going, which is precisely what happened at the first of the HighMind talks associated with this year’s HighTide Festival.

The panel in question, mediated by Will Gompertz the BBC arts editor, comprised Mike Daisey, a self-proclaimed monologist and gonzo journalist; Jean-Michele Gregory, his director for The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (of which more elsewhere on this site); Ben Hammersley, editor-at-large of Wired magazine and The Times journalist and critic Libby Purves.

Audiences over the past decade or so have been offered a whole range of staged drama-documentaries from actual transcripts of court or enquiry proceedings or using the published recollections of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events to illuminate those happenings. Editing naturally occurs, otherwise we’d all be still in the theatre a day later.

Of course, there’s nothing new about presenting fact as fiction, just as fiction often wears the guise of fact. The notorious subtitle of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII is All is True – which it wasn’t at the time any more than it is now. The Living Newspaper concept was a 1930s phenomenon which grew out of the American Federal Theater Project while in Britain Unity Theatre staged its own take on events in the news.

Documentary theatre, as both Purves and Hammersley emphasised, is designed to make people think about situations and issues. Writers and directors however necessarily slant the emphasis to create a viable piece of stage-craft. The plays of Howard Brenton, David Edgar and David Hare were cited to illustrate how a writer’s political agenda also shapes the work as the paying public sees it.

Throwing something of a spanner into the cerebral works, Purves (mischievously?) suggested that a play written from an extreme right-wing perspective might be equally challenging to an audience, not to mention the potential director and cast. It will be fascinating to see if anyone takes up her challenge. “’What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer” wrote Francis Bacon in the 17th century. We might ask today: “What is theatre, what is propaganda and does truth have a capital T?”


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