Political Plays

By Shirley Barrie

I spent my early theatrical years in England in the 70’s & 80’s when plays with a decided political agenda had a growing, if sometimes controversial, prominence.  I was the associate artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre, and in the early 80’s we were dubbed Dykes on Trikes in some circles because we had the audacity to present a women’s season including a play titled Red Door Without a Bolt.  Although I don’t always write political plays, I love theatre that grabs the audience by the throat and forces them to theatrically confront the big issues that currently face us.  But these plays can sometimes be hard to find. So I was intrigued by English playwright David Edgar’s recent article in The Guardian, lauding a new wave of political playwrights.

And this theatre isn’t just found in the back rooms of pubs and in small spaces.  It’s being commissioned and produced by mid-sized theatres as well as by the biggest and best-funded theatres in the nation.

In England new writer Lucy Prebble’s Enron (her second play) sells out at the Chichester Festival, moves to the Royal Court’s main theatre, then to the West End and in April opens on Broadway.  Stovepipe, Adam Brace’s first play, about private military contractors in Iraq, is co-produced by High Tide, the Bush and the National Theatre.  One newspaper rates it the 10th best play of the last decade.

In the US Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, about women in the context of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, wins the Pulitzer Prize for drama.  Virginia Grise wins the Yale Drama Series $10,000 playwrighting prize for blu, a play about how a Mexican-American family copes with the death of its eldest son, a soldier in Iraq.

In Canada?  Yes we have Judith Thompson’s Palace of the End, which had great success at home as well as abroad, but in medium and small sized theatres.  Yes, there is Wajdi Mouawad’s powerful Scorched, but (in English) at the Tarragon Theatre not at the Bluma Appel.  Yes, there are plays like Carmen Aguirre’s Refugee Hotel produced by Alameda Theatre Company at Theatre Passe Muraille.  There is Afghanada on CBC Radio.  But where is the play on a big stage about Canada in Afghanistan?  The one about Canada letting the US and countries like Syria do its dirty work for it?

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that so-called political theatre has never dropped off the radar in England.  Caryl Churchill has always written political plays, and has been embraced by the Royal Court and the National Theatre.  David Hare’s Stuff Happens debuted at the Olivier, the biggest stage at the National Theatre, and toured the world, including Toronto.  The Tricycle’s series of verbatim plays ripped from various public inquiries packed theatres and sometimes transferred to the West End.

It’s possible that change is coming here.  Two years ago Stratford produced Joanna McClelland Glass’s Palmer Park about the aftermath of the race riots in Detroit in the late 60’s.  Yesterday, I was reminded by an article in The Star, that Stratford and the Luminato Festival have commissioned Volcano Theatre’s The Africa Trilogy – a fascinating project, but the three writers come from Germany, England and South Africa.

Ross Manson, the AD of Volcano said:  “We just could not do what we are doing with this now unless we had the backing of an organization with deep pockets.”

Are there other Canadian theatres with deep pockets that are commissioning Canadian writers to explore the big political issues of the day?  Should there be?