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Encore Theatre Magazine
::Front Page::

:: Saturday, November 06, 2004 ::

So, the Future Will Be Like This

Alex Jennings as George W. Bush in David Hare's Stuff Happens (National Theatre: Olivier, 2004) Photographer: Ivan KynclGeorge W. Bush has been elected for another term. Somehow this reckless and imperialist government that has done more to inspire suicide bombers and terrorists everywhere managed to persuade the American people of the opposite: that there could be such a thing as a war on terror, that such a war could be winnable, and that Bush is the man to win it. The Republicans mobilised the evangelicals, and in the process somehow managed to articulate its mean, prejudiced, fearful values as 'values'. As if screaming abuse at women seeking abortions is any kind of morality. Karl Rove's cynical strategy of holding votes on banning gay marriage in swing states seems to have encouraged this false equation between moral fear and moral value. Bush has the chance decisively to alter the political tenor of the Supreme Court. Is it possible that this new government might manage to reverse Roe vs. Wade? Hopeful friends talk about Bush standing up to this lobby, but it's not at all clear that he would want to. The country's split down the middle; he's never going to win the coastal states and the Democrats are not likely to make inroads in the Midwest. If the Evangelicals were decisive, and it looks like they were in Ohio, Bush has everything to lose by standing up to them and nothing to gain. The US is heading deeper into its experiment in Government based on religious fundamentalism. It's the West's Sharia.

But even more importantly, what new horror will Bush unleash on the world? Iran's uranium enrichment programme is openly underway. In the Shahab ballistioc missile, they have a delivery system far superior to anything Iraq possessed. Bush is contemptuous of the delicate balances in the region; his talk of an axis of evil has already managed to unite the reformers and the hard-liners in the country who have split Iranian politics and culture for at least the last eight years. Jack Straw thinks it is 'inconceivable' that Bush could bomb Tehran. This sounds less like analysis and more like pleading. (Or is it sly? Bush may not have to bomb Tehran; he could just turn a blind eye if Israel does.)

Hattie Morahan as Iphigenia in Iphigenia at Aulis (National Theatre: Lyttelton, 2004, dir. Katie Mitchell), photographer Ivan KynclWe read that there has been a revival of political theatre in the shadow of the Bush presidency and the fallout after September 11 and the occupation of Iraq. Certainly there has been a revival of Aristophanic satire (The Madness of George Dubya, Follow My Leader, A Weapons Inspector Calls, Embedded), of sober documentary-dramas on the preparations for and prosection of the war (Justifying War, Guantanamo, Stuff Happens [above]), and a slew of revivals interpretively shaped by the ongoing conflict (Henry V, Iphigenia at Aulis, Hecuba, and Cruel and Tender, Martin Crimp and Luc Bondy's reinvention of Sophocles's Trachiniai).

Some of these have been very exciting evenings. Iphigenia at Aulis (left) was a devastating, wholly convincing rediscovery of Euripides's satirical venom, his bitter contempt for political rhetoric and military expediency. It was terribly moving in Justifying War to watch the unfolding story of Dr David Kelly's slow subsidence into suicide, and the country sank into its Faustian alliance with the US. Encore's no great fan of David Hare, but Stuff Happens was history as tragedy and farce and told its story with care, urgency and wit. Alex Jennings's George W. Bush was a masterly combination of impersonation and creation, beautifully observed but full-blooded with authority and actorly intelligence. It reminded us - as we should be reminded - that Bush didn't get to that position by being dumb. His inscrutable responses to the anguished phone calls of Nicholas Farrell's handwringing Blair showed us a smart political operator running circles around his ally.

The company in The Madness of George Dubya by Justin Butcher (Theatro Technis, transferred to Arts Theatre, 2003), photographer: Stefano CagnoniBut are they enough? In the rush to satire, some theatrical graces have been lost. While Justin Butcher's The Madness of George Dubya (right) had a knockabout vitality, Alistair Beaton's Follow My Leader was a luke-warm, slap-dash horror whose analysis was pitiful, theatrical energy entirely confected, and earned its laughs by recycling half-witted untruths from the left's unthinking wing. While Iphigenia managed to respect the original while reinventing it for us, Hecuba at the Donmar, though it's still previewing, seems awkwardly overdetermined by its rush to forge links with the contemporary world.

And this fad for verbatim theatre. Although it can be exciting, it can also feel like a negation of theatre. It treats our cherished theatricality as something that must be made transparent; we look through these windows into the real world. The Tricycle's tribunal plays are sometimes, we suspect, deliberately written to be a little boring, as if this will place us more accurately in the court room and give us the monotonous flavour of real life.

Is this the only choice available to political theatre? To travesty theatricality, or to efface it? Doesn't our theatrical tradition have anything else to offer? Where is metaphor in all this? Where is transformation and imagination? Where is intense focus on language? Where is the passionate presence of human bodies and the nascent collectivity stirring in all theatre audiences? It feels frivolous to insist on what they used to call the theatre theatrical when matters are so urgent, but we should hold our nerve and ask the questions, because to bite them back is to despair of the theatre when we should be exploring its most political contours.


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