A young woman waits anxiously as her fiancée’s heart is removed in a perverse operation to save his life. A nameless person sits dumbfounded, openly framed for a brutal crime. And an occupied university building is visited by the voices of lovers from a bygone era.
Part farce, part anger and often served with a large dose of dark humour, Theatre Uncut brings protest to the stage. The seven short plays that make up Theatre Uncut were written by Lucy Kirkwood, Dennis Kelly, Laura Lomas, Anders Lustgarten, Mark Ravenhill, Jack Thorne and Clara Brennan. All seven scripts are a response to the coalition’s spending cuts. The flagship production was staged at Southwark Theatre on 19 March and on the same night the plays were also performed in community centres, youth theatres and sitting rooms across the county. More than 45 performances took place, from Brixton market to Edinburgh University.
The scripts are as diverse as the breadth of the cuts. They take the audience on an angry journey that questions the necessity of the public service cuts and forcibly demonstrates the scale of the attack. They give voice to those who fear losing the benefits they rely on and paint allegorical pictures of the absurdity of an austerity drive that offers no growth plan.
Those behind the event hope it will bear witness to and provide a record of how the cuts are affecting people in the UK. Hannah Price, artistic director of Reclaim Productions, the company behind Theatre Uncut, wants the performances to be the start of a national theatrical uprising, setting in motion a continued dialogue. And with so many readings and performances already taking place, the project has surely provided a space for creative discussions.
Price was surprised at how easy it was to get people involved in the project: ‘I had no idea how many cross people there were out there. From ex-pats in the US to people in Berlin, people just approached us. It was easier than you would have thought.’
Count me in
When Price first shared her idea, it was an automatic ‘count me in’ from renowned playwright Mark Ravenhill: ‘It is refreshing to see how political this generation has become. I wanted to work on something that could involve people from across the country. These plays are a starting point for bringing a group of people together for a discussion, and drama is a good way of imagining other worlds and other ways of thinking.’
Ravenhill’s script took the student protests in 2010 as a point of departure to explore the dreams of a past generation. Apparitions from the 1950s, Marge and Fred, celebrate the birth of the NHS and debate the next steps required for more equality: gradual change or revolution? Softly, softly or the blood and terror of an uprising?
Ravenhill leaves these questions for a new generation of students to ponder. ‘The play doesn’t wrap that up,’ he says. ‘Gradualism may be very well intentioned but, when under attack, is it strong enough to protect what we’ve gained?’
Last century we gained a welfare state and a health system that are the envy of many around the world. It is the prospect of this being slowly dismantled that Price wants people to discuss. ‘I want to inspire people to look at it in more detail,’ she says.
It is the details that many of the plays are preoccupied with. Several focus on a subject that doesn’t often get discussed on the stage: economic literacy. In particular, they describe the pressing need to understand the numbers so we can fight back informed.
‘The numbers are so complicated that we need an entirely new language,’ claims Bill’s accountant in Lucy Kirkwood’s short piece. By making Bill feel that his economic situation is far too difficult for him to understand the accountant persuades Bill to sell his gran for ‘a good price’. Physically too weak to defend the sovereignty of her body, gran at least has the mental capacity left to assess the accountant as she’s dragged from her home: ‘You’re a cunt.’ No wool over her eyes, then.
Lustgarten’s piece is more of a speech than a traditional piece of theatre, but again the same themes emerge. For Lustgarten the world of economics is purposefully being made ‘opaque and complex’.
The impact of the austerity drive on people’s lives is another key theme threading the seven scripts together. Linda the Glow Clown’s monologue by Clara Brennan is an evocative tale of a mother who, in the absence of the disability mobility allowance, can no longer take her disabled daughter on excursions from the care home. Aware of her daughter’s anger at this loss of freedom, Linda feels able only to visit her in disguise. As a clown she attempts to give her daughter in laughter and pleasure what she cannot with a trip to the forest or the sea.
The death of the enabling state is metaphorically depicted in Jack Thorne’s play. Nigel and Julie create a world where their pets and children perish in the purposeful absence of love and basic care. Survival of the fittest marks the sadistic actions of parents who believe that mobility – physical, political, economic – is nothing if it’s not achieved alone. ‘Real mobility is being mobile without support,’ proclaims Julie.
Arts under the cuts
Theatre Uncut paints a vivid picture of the many impacts of austerity, but the scripts are also a comment on cuts to the arts. Written, directed and performed for free, these plays provide their own protest against the cuts and serve as a powerful reminder of the talent of UK script writers – talent which, alongside musicians, actors and artists now, faces an uncertain future. The Arts Council is losing 29.6 per cent from its budget on top of 100 per cent cuts to humanities teaching in universities. There can be no disputing that these cuts will harm our cultural industries.
Lack of funding for the arts is nothing new. The executive director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Vikki Heywood, has already made the comparison with the last Tory administration, when many arts organisations were left in tremendous debt. This doesn’t make the effects any less serious though. Arts are central to how we learn to relate to each other, to experience one another’s lives and to share our own. The arts offer us a commentary on how to make sense of the world and even how to change it.
Already there are many people in the UK excluded from participation in the arts; with less funding this number is set to increase. We could be left with an unbridgeable divide as arts become the preserve only of those who can afford to keep them as a hobby. Richard Eyre, former artistic director of the National Theatre, claims the result of the Arts Council cuts could be ‘a cultural apartheid’, which it may not be possible to reverse.
As Lisa, the anxious fiancée, watches her partner struggle to survive, she decries the ease of destruction: ‘It’s not the tearing up that’s hard … It’s the putting back together.’ When hearts are removed, they do not re-grow.
Theatre Uncut is produced by Reclaim Productions, in association with Meeting Point Productions. www.theatreuncut.co.uk