WhatsOnStage Logo
Home link

Playwrights are casting more light on the state of things than politicians

As the autumn theatre season gears up, Sarah Crompton reflects on how playwrights are dealing with the current state of affairs better than politicians

Shappi Khorsandi (one of the writers of ''Women in Power), James Graham and Vinay Patel
© Dan Wooller (left and centre); Bronwen Sharp (right)

I don't know about you but coming back to school this autumn has felt very depressing. I don't actually go to school any more, obviously, and nor do my sons, but the start of the school year still psychologically marks the return of reality after the hazy days of summer. And this year reality feels particularly grim.

Some of you won't agree with me, but the nearer we come to the chaos that will be caused by Brexit, the more worried I feel. I am alarmed by Trump in America and by the rise of the Far Right across Europe. I mourn the wars and suffering across the world, and I am profoundly depressed by the rise in poverty and hardship that I see all around me in our own country, as more people are forced onto the streets and into food banks by policies that are built on theories not on the practicalities of actually supporting people.

Repetition doesn't make me believe politicians or that they have solutions

And none of this is made better by a 24-hour news cycle of posturing politicians, telling me the same things over and over again. Repetition doesn't make me believe them or that they have solutions. When I was in Edinburgh over the summer, Kieran Hodgson's clever 75 made me remember how the generation of politicians I grew up listening to – in the 1980s and 1990s – were, whatever their other flaws, in general more eloquent, impassioned and serious-minded than many of our current leaders. Perhaps the fact that so many of them had lived through – and in some cases, fought in – a world war made them realise just how precious peace and compassion are.

The prospect of an adventurous autumn of theatre going is cheering me up

However, the afflictions that have descended upon our senior politicians (with honourable exceptions) do not seem to have affected our playwrights. In fact, one of the few things that is cheering me up at the moment is the prospect of an autumn of adventurous, thought-provoking theatre. Not all these plays are overtly topical: An Adventure, for example, by the talented Vinay Patel, about to open at the Bush, makes its relevant points through a family saga set over decades; Women in Power at NST City, Southampton, sees an exciting team of women writers adapting Aristophanes to create a comedy in which a coup d'etat brings about all-female government to cast light on our troubled times.

The plays are essential attempts to introduce clarity and insight into a clouded and dangerous state of affairs

But some specifically tackle the issues of our age. David Hare's I'm Not Running at the National directly addresses Corbyn-era Labour; Debbie Tucker Green's ear for eye at the Royal Court sounds like a call to arms. And then there's James Graham. Britain's busiest playwright is currently presiding over Sketching, at Wilton's Music Hall, which uses eight emerging writers and the inspiration of Charles Dickens to put together a portrait of 24 hours in the life of London, seen through the eyes of its ordinary people. Then, because the contribution of playwrights on TV has also to be recognised (see previous columns), there's his Brexit drama on Channel 4 to be watched.

All these dramas, in their different ways, are attempts to cast more light on the state of things than the instant reactions of politicians and political commentators. They seem to me essential attempts to introduce clarity and insight into a clouded and dangerous state of affairs. On Sunday, at 1pm, I will be talking about such things to Graham (and to Rupert Goold, who directed his play Ink) at the Royal Academy's Festival of Ideas (another beacon of light in the darkness). If you are free, come along to Burlington Gardens to join in. If you aren't, I'll report back later on our conclusions.

For now I will just point you to a couple of sentences from playwright Stephen Karam in the programme note to The Humans, another play which attempts, in subtle ways, to describe and address the fractures in society which have arisen in the past decades. "Writers try to tell the truth, that's our job – avoid propaganda or a tidy resolution. And politicians are interested in the question that The Humans was born out of too: 'What are the things that keep human beings up at night?'"