The notion of Utopia, since its original coinage by Thomas More in the 16th century, has always had a slippery cultural definition. Imagined as a perfect society, the theoretical existence of a Utopia puts pressure on the sense of the ideal, and the politically turbulent landscape in which we operate seems as far as ever from this notion of paradise. ‘Utopia’, from the Greek ‘ou-topos’, meaning ‘no-place’ or ‘nowhere’, in its native form necessitates a somewhat nihilistic approach to an imagined perfection. More makes perfection and its existence mutually exclusive. Is there a possibility of achieving a societal paradise, or are we destined to exist forever outside it? Does theatre provide us with an operational no-where scape, or does it have an obligation to keep us grounded in an imperfect reality?
Theatre as an escape from reality is an enduring cliché, but the sentiment behind it has considerable weight in the determination of theatre’s function. Some of the most popular theatre is, and always will be, that which does not require immediate intellectual engagement. It is hard to muse on the intricacies of government turmoil while watching Mormons in pink glitter waistcoats perform a synchronised tap routine. But theatre, on the theatrical mainstream and its fringes, has always shouldered some modicum of political purpose. Does theatre have a responsibility, with its platform, to provide us with a no-where space of escape, or should it confront us with uncomfortable contemporary realities? The ancient Chinese curse goes: ‘may you live in interesting times’, and today’s ‘interesting’ climate has produced extensive politically interesting theatre.
The nativity of theatre was in Athens, where politics and drama were irrevocably interwoven, giving rise to the exploration of civic ideologies within a dramatic framework. The inevitable synthesis of the democratic ruling citizenship with theatrical audiences meant democratic discussions could take place; from the Greek noun of action, even the etymology of drama suggests balanced agency between actor and audience. Theatre in its origins required a partnership of joint effort, whether performative or interpretive, and the political engagement allowed in a play is unique. It lacks the physical detachment of poetry or prose, but maintains more immediacy than film or television. We are given little, if any, time to muse privately as the play unfolds if we are to follow the action; part of the joy of a play is its dizzying tendency to rattle on as we breathless, try to keep up. Thus, Greek theatre, by definition, removed the audience from that liminal ‘no-where’ space, asserting itself as a political mover in the experiment of democracy. It was as much functional as recreational. It was an aggravator of modernity, rather than an escape from it. Theatre’s function was visceral, personal.
The real world, however, is never far away. We collectively flog the excuse of the passage of time, and its being indicative of change, to death, when the degree of separation afforded by period costume and an outdated register is minimal. We only need to look as far as Arthur Miller’s The Crucibleto demonstrate how the issues we thought had been buried by the sands of time nevertheless find ways to reveal themselves. The Puritanical setting of Miller’s play, the Salem witch trials of 1692-93, would presumably place us a safe distance from its politics of hysteria, blame and human cruelty. However, the undertones of McCarthyism that emerge throughout this literal witch-hunt remind us of the politically treacherous climate in which Miller was writing: it is a gloomy repetition of what we thought was distant history.
Recent productions have utilised this political immediacy to open, or at least contribute to, political conversations that surround us every day. Even some stalwarts of traditional drama have been modernised to engage with the current political milieu. The 2018 production of Julius Caesarat the Bridge Theatre, directed by Nicholas Hytner, had David Morrissey’s hyper-masculine Mark Antony in modernised military uniform play the perfectly disturbing opportunist and pseudo-loyalist lurking behind a despotic, Trump-esque and aged Caesar. The promenade staging urged the audience into the role of pro-Caesar supporter as they were herded around the space, implicit themselves in homogenised support for the Emperor-cum-POTUS enthroned above them. There is an active sense of dystopia in this type of political engagement. We are denied anaesthetic from the wounds of the modern day, and have the salt of theatrical rhetoric rubbed into them. The necessity of movement in the Hytner’s audience made manifest this urge for audience movement, physical and intellectual, in reaction to theatre. I left with an eerily evocative red baseball cap reading ‘CAESAR’ and a nauseating sense of dread: if this political despotism can be so seamlessly mapped onto today’s politics, how far have we come since the so called ‘ancient’ tyrannies of Caesar’s rule?
In these cases, art imitates the life of the political quotidian. Exaggerated for entertainment’s sake and inevitably wrestled around a coherent dramatic plot, these real-life political intricacies are frightening reminders of our surroundings that, for all their contemporary potency, can overwhelm us in the auditorium, but leave our minds as soon as we leave. The wider battle lacks the immediacy of the battle with fellow travellers on the Northern line at 10:30pm on a Friday. But what happens when life begins to imitate art? Your fill of the dramatic need not be from a script, controlled within a neat two hours by a playwright, when the political atmosphere surrounding us has the makings of a boundless Aristotelean tragedy. The six facets of tragedy, according to Aristotle, are plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle and music. The recent ITV election debate puts before us two caricatures; Corbyn’s tilted glasses are costume-like, and the laughter with which Johnson is met when he vouches for his own dedication to ‘the truth’ is like that of a pantomime audience. We do not have a Greek Chorus to explain the actions or motives of these ‘characters’, but are left to feel our way through murky rhetoric with our eyes closed.
A Utopia of ‘no-where’ is difficult to achieve when Westminster is infected by the West End, and vice versa. The initially farcical plot of UK politics is veering steadily into a perpetual dramatic ‘complication’, and its denouement is hours and hours away; in the play of Brexit, we haven’t even reached the interval.