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Photo: Philip Vile
Since April 2013, a curious, bright red, box-like structure has been squatting outside the front of the National Theatre on London’s South Bank. This is the Shed, the National’s temporary venue while its Cottesloe theatre is closed for renovation. This year, the Cottesloe will reopen as the Dorfman, and the Shed, having served its purpose, will disappear from view.
That purpose, according to the National, has been to put on ‘original, ambitious and unexpected’ work. While not deliberately going for ‘political theatre’ (that most controversial of terms), this policy has resulted in plays that have tackled particular contemporary issues. Among them are Nadia Fall’s Home, looking at the lives of the residents of a homeless hostel in east London, Tim Price’s Protest Song, a monologue about the Occupy movement from the point of view of a rough sleeper in the City, and Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s World of Extreme Happiness, on the mass migration of China’s rural workers to the industrial cities. Before it closes the Shed will also see a devised piece, Blurred Lines, looking at gender politics, which could hardly be more timely.
In Protest Song Price, whose play The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning won him the James Tait Black prize for drama at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, looks at Occupy, through the eyes of rough sleeper Danny (Rhys Ifans), with a sort of grudging respect. Again, the radicalisation of an individual is the theme. Danny initially resents the camp which has invaded his sleeping space on the steps of St Paul’s cathedral, before being slowly drawn into it.
‘I’m not a protester,’ he protests, although this was itself a common refrain among Occupiers. Through helping out in the daily activities of the camp, though, he soon becomes one, and there’s a nice little in-joke for those of us familiar with the rigmarole known as consensus decision-making. But Danny remains caught between two communities, the rough sleepers of the City and the temporary excitement of the tent city, and cannot resolve the contradiction. Thus we see Price’s main criticism of Occupy, which doesn’t focus on the limitations of the movement’s politics so much as on the limitations of its method.
Cowhig’s protagonist Sunny (Katie Leung) is a similar reluctant hero, caught up in one of the largest migrations in history: the movement of Chinese rural workers to the cities. Finding herself in a thrillingly depicted neon industrial dystopia, she becomes imbued with cult-like ideas of self-betterment at the expense of her workmates. She initially ignores the attempts of her sexist and jaded supervisor (Junix Inocian) to point her in the direction of an underground union of sanitation workers. Sunny wins a competition to be the public face of her company, a success story to attract investors, but uses the public platform to make a different stand, and pays the ultimate price at the hands of the ever-present brutal Chinese state.
These are plays about the central characters making the decision to stand against their material conditions. Danny’s rebellion is short-lived, Sunny’s is ultimately crushed, and the message could easily be ‘why bother?’ And yet, the pessimism serves a purpose. A monologue in praise of Occupy would have been dreadful, reminiscent of all too many political meetings where someone exhorts the room to ‘learn the lessons’ of the Occupy movement without telling us what they might be. Price’s story is actually quite scathing in parts, although never dismissive of the camp.
They are also plays about historical memory and how it shapes and is shaped by recent events. In World of Extreme Happiness, generational stories are woven together to shed light on China’s incomprehensibly rapid industrial and political development, as they were by Lucy Kirkwood in her acclaimed Chimerica. Protest Song sees Danny grapple with his memories of 2011 while he fields phone calls from his key worker intent on dragging him back to his present existence. And in Home, the residents of the hostel cohere their tangled life stories around the anniversary of the murder of a popular resident and friend. Home emerges as the sharper of the three because of the personal complexities it manages to communicate; it is helped by being a verbatim piece, allowing anonymous residents to speak for themselves.
The Shed has proved that many forms of theatre, from verbatim to monologue, are in rude health and tackling the issues of the day. Now, if only we lived in a world where ‘Neptune Investment Management’ didn’t have to be plastered all over the programmes…
The Shed continues at the National Theatre until April