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Guest Blog: Political theatre - just for urbanites?

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Clare Bayley's new play Blue Sky premieres at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs from 24 October to 10 November 2012.

Bayley's previous writing credits include The Container, performed with actors and audience locked inside an old ship’s container, which won a Fringe First and the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award and has subsequently been performed at the Young Vic, Chapter Arts in Cardiff and on national tour.

Here, following director Elizabeth Freestone's blog for Whatsonstage.com back in July, she argues why political theatre is for all.

"Despite the impression given by Escape To The Country and The Archers, the countryside has long been the lifeblood of oppositional movements. From the Peasants' Revolt to the Diggers, the Reform Bill to the Grain Riots, radical political thought is part of the rural story." says Elizabeth Freestone, artistic director of Pentabus Theatre.

This is the rationale for her inaugural season as artistic director of the Ludlow-based touring company. She's interested in showing how connected each of us is to the global story, however geographically or personally isolated we feel.

My play, Blue Sky takes the huge, global story of extraordinary rendition - the CIA practice of kidnapping terror suspects and transporting them to countries where they will be tortured under interrogation - and places it in the beautiful Shropshire countryside.

The characters in Blue Sky are not CIA operatives or politicians. There is one kind of political theatre which concerns itself with the big players and decision-makers in these stories. But I am interested in the individual reactions and responses of ordinary people to public events.

Wherever you live, it's easy to feel very far from the place where political decisions are taken and the global players who take them. Actions are taken every day in our name, in the name of peace, freedom and democracy. Often it's more comfortable not to think about too much. We're encouraged to let the big guys take care of the nasty stuff, on our behalf. But what do we do if by accident we stumble upon the things we're not supposed to know about? What do we do with that information?

The CIA invented the term 'extraordinary rendition' in order to conceal what it really was - illegal kidnap and torture which flouts all the international agreements on human rights. The practice itself was devised in order to conceal the fact that it was using torture: by taking prisoners to another country, and getting them to do the dirty work for them, they could still deny that the US was engaged in torture.

The plan was unsuccessful in terms of capturing terrorists and preventing attacks. But it was incredibly successful in confusing people about what was going on.

It took some highly dedicated and tenacious investigative journalists to bring the story to light. But even then it was hard to grasp. What theatre can do, that journalism doesn't always, is to humanise these large, abstract stories, and make them personal. Theatre is an empathic artform. Through theatre you can put yourself in another person's shoes, and try out how it would feel if it happened to you.

In Blue Sky an investigative journalist is attempting to find out about a mystery plane which she suspects has been transporting prisoners. She hopes her old friend, a planespotter, will be able to help her. But he is unaware of the significance of the information at his fingertips. And then, like many of us, he's nervous that it'll land him in a lot of bother if he examines it too closely.

Since I started writing the play, more facts have emerged about British involvement in torture. Last week a former Wren and police officer resigned from the Iraq Historic Allegations Team because she says that some of her fellow investigators weren't taking seriously evidence of "quite terrible abuses" of Iraqi prisoners by British troops.

The whole story is depressing; but what's heartening is that abuses like this can't be kept secret for long in a democracy with a free press. It depends, though, on all of us being alert to what's being done in our name. It depends on us noticing those little planes landing at obscure airfields. However far from the seat of power we are. Even in the heart of the countryside.

Blue Sky is on at the Hampstead Theatre Studio from Wednesday 24 October until Saturday 3 November and at the Sherman Cymru in Cardiff from Tuesday 13 until Saturday 17 November.


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