22nd CDE Annual Conference, Prague (Charles University)
30 May – 2 June 2013
„Theatre and Politics: Theatre as Cultural Intervention“
The 22nd annual conference of the German Society for Contemporary Theatre and Drama in English (CDE) was hosted in Prague, thus for the first time outside of the borders of a German-speaking country – a sure sign of the growing international recognition and relevance of CDE’s work. The conference was devoted to the topic of „Theatre and Politics: Theatre as Cultural Intervention“, an aspect of perennial significance for drama and the theatre. As a public and communal art form, theatre has always functioned as a space for the exploration and performance of power, protest, intervention and identity. While debates around theatre and politics may be as old as theatre itself, both terms must be recognized as moving targets. The heritage of Brecht and the history of activist theatres of the 1960s and 1970s meet crucial challenges in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Amelia Howe Kritzer’s concluding chapter to Political Theatre in Post-Thatcher Britain (2008) points to one of the most pervasive of these challenges at the turn of the century: that of postmodern detachment from the political. The post-1989 political arena has featured an alleged „end of history“, followed by an age of terrorist threat to the repercussions of globalized neoliberal policies; it presents a complex and contradictory field of engagement, one in which community has been etiolated, and in which activism or intervention may seem naïve or pointless. A central issue around which the conference revolved was the meaning of political engagement to theatre practitioners in the twenty-first century. This and similar questions proved to be a fruitful focal point for a conference characterised by highly stimulating talks and lively discussions.
An eloquent and thought-provoking opening to the conference was provided by theatre practitioner-cum-academic Alan Read (King’s College London). In his keynote speech on the first night of conference, he sounded out the political dimensions of theatrical performance against the backdrop of contemporary philosophical discourses of community (e.g. Jean-Luc Nancy, Giorgio Agamben, Roberto Esposito) as well as recent practical and conceptual attempts at audience inclusion (partly inspired by Jacques Rancière’s concept of emancipation) and dissolving boundaries between theatrical agents and spectators. Highlighting the limits of the Rancièrian concept of the emancipated spectator for performance art, Read pitted his own sceptical version of the „emaciated spectator“ against the political fantasy of incremental empowerment through performance. Thus he voiced strong doubts as to the feasibility of any theory of liberating democratic engagement engendered by what he called the „infra-thin glazed veneer“ of theatre.
The papers of the next conference day all stressed the undiminished political relevance of 21st-century theatre, while at the same time they gave ample evidence to its multifaceted spectrum, ranging from the politics of everyday life, social media and community-building to performances of revolutionary discourse, regional identity politics and the representation of military conflict. Trish Reid (Kingston University London) shed light on a politics of sincerity in Cora Bisset and David Greig’s recent NTS musical Glasgow Girls, which issues a plea for active political engagement in Scottish post-devolutionary drama. The absence of such direct political engagement despite increasing political and economic inequalities in American society was diagnosed by Barry Hall (University of Nizwa) for contemporary American drama as a whole – a view that was controversially discussed by conference delegates afterwards in reference to such recent politically conscious drama as Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park (2010). Further facets of the political were reflected in Ariane de Waal’s (University of Bochum) talk on contemporary British war drama, in which she scrutinized the them/us dichotomy in dramatic representations of the Iraq war by Colin Teevan (How Many Miles to Basra? , 2006), Roy Williams (Days of Significance, 2007) and Adam Brace (Stovepipe, 2008/09). Harking back to the issue of spectatorship involvement raised by Alan Read in the conference opening, Julia Boll (University of Constance) argued for the power of theatrical performance as displayed in the experimental Brazilian-British coproduction by Zecora Ura Theatre and Para Active, Hotel Medea (2010-12), to enable the audience to form a relationship with the politically and socially excluded that has the potential of overcoming this exclusion. Like Boll, Marilena Zaroulia (University of Winchester) also drew on Giorgio Agamben’s concept of the homo sacer in her talk about performances of the displaced European Other in contemporary British theatre (in Transport Theatre/Tena Štivičić’s Invisible and Simon Stephens‚ Three Kingdoms, both 2011/12), while suggesting in the context of recent European reforms that these productions represent continental Europe as the formerly invisible Other of contemporary British theatre.
In another fascinating panel of papers on the role of media, Claudia Georgi (University of Göttingen) rated the chances of Gob Squad’s recent production Revolution Now! (2010) to challenge the current cultural mood of political disengagement with a combination of immediate live performance and inescapable mediatisation. In contrast to Gob Squad’s video screens, Cyrielle Garson (University of Avignon) looked at another element of media technology in contemporary British theatre that comes in the form of headphone-verbatim drama. Informed by semiotic and poststructuralist theories, she maintained that headphone-conveyed „voiceprints“ in Alecky Blythe’s Voices from the Mosque (2011) and Tamasha Theatre’s The Trouble with Asian Men (2005) are a productive technique for rethinking the link between verbatim theatre and transnational political culture. Patrick Lonergan (NUI Galway), finally, made a stimulating foray into performance aspects of social media like Facebook and Twitter, specifically concerning the commercialisation of audience response exploited for marketing by some major Irish theatre companies, which not only renders the border between theatrical and mediatised personal performance permeable, but also raises questions concerning the politics of audience reception.
The second conference day was concluded by a keynote event with the celebrated writer/director/actor Tim Crouch, who was interviewed by theatre critic Aleks Sierz. Best known for his experimental play The Author (2009), in which Crouch plays himself as writer of and actor in the very play being performed, Crouch’s theatre is based on a radical rejection of stage realism and naturalistic sets and props, which invites audiences to immerse themselves fully in fluid performances that break down the dividing line between actors and spectators. As Crouch made it clear, a constant thread in his plays/performances (such as My Arm, 2003, An Oak Tree, 2005, or ENGLAND, 2007) is the removal of all colouration as an act of rebellion against long-standing aesthetic conventions, which forces audiences into creating their own worlds during performance.
The third day of the conference started off with three papers on theatrical representations of working-class, minority and everyday life in contemporary Britain. Katie Beswick (University of Leeds) turned to the ethics of representation of council estates (i.e. British social housing) in the recent production of Bola Agbaje’s Off the Endz by the Royal Court (2010). Scrutinising the idea of new writing/production programmes targeting the „authentic voices“ of economically disadvantaged and minority ethnic communities, Beswick questioned the notion of the authenticity in such attempts at a democratising of culture. In a similar vein, Siân Adiseshiah (University of Lincoln) addressed strategies of performing proletarianism in the current resurgence of political drama in 21st-century Britain by interrogating three recent plays (Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, 2009, Gillian Slovo’s The Riots, 2011, and the 2013 National Theatre revival of Simon Stephens‚ The Port, 2002) as to their depiction of working-class identities as deviant or subhuman in the light of Owen Jones’s recent best-selling book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (2011). Finally, Lucia Krämer (Leibniz University, Hanover) focused on National Theatre’s popular production of London Road (2011) by dramatist Alecky Blythe and composer Adam Cork and reviewed its ethical efficacy in representing community healing as a reaction to a traumatic event, also in the light of the production’s blending of verbatim drama and stage musical.
A critique of community-oriented practices and normative identity concepts was identified by Christina Delgado-García (Aberystwyth University) in her analysis of Quarantine’s metatheatrical production Entitled (premiered at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester in 2011). Despite the show’s seemingly apolitical self-referentiality in presenting the technical preparations for a play that is never staged, Delgado-García stressed the production’s potential for disrupting the performers‘ and spectators‘ habitus during performance, thus effecting an emancipative political intervention by dismantling normative identity discourses and cultural practices. A different strategy of political intervention in an age when traditional Shavian political drama seems to have lost its efficacy was presented by Sarah Grochala (Queen Mary, University of London) with reference to David Eldridge’s Incomplete and Random Acts of Kindness (2005). Drawing on David Harvey’s diagnosis of the compressed experience of time and space in late capitalist society, Grochala maintained that Eldridge’s play structurally articulates a complete breakdown in temporal succession, which makes it a profoundly political play by exposing the time-space compression of lived experience. As a counterpoint to popular claims that traditional politically engaged drama has become irrelevant in Britain, Paola Botham (Birmingham City University) reminded us of the rebirth of the Brechtian history play in Howard Brenton’s latest plays In Extremis (2006), Anne Boleyn (2010), 55 Days (2012) and #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei (2013). Botham analysed how the Brechtian model is transformed in these plays to meet the aesthetic and political demands of the 21st century and continue the Habermasian project of modernity against the postmodernist orthodoxies of today.
After the interview with Tim Crouch on the previous day, the third day provided another keynote highlight with a much-discussed contemporary British dramatist, the controversial writer Gurpreet Bhatti, who was again interviewed by Aleks Sierz in his inimitably elegant way. Born in Watford to Punjabi immigrants, Bhatti views herself as a writer of comedies, despite all the religious and political controversy around her plays. After her first play Behsharam (Shameless) premiered in 2001, Bhatti became (in)famous for her next play Behzti (Dishonour) , whose production was dropped by the Birmingham Rep Theatre in 2005 after violent public outrage against its depiction of Sikh sexuality, violence and rape. Ensuing death threats forced her to go into hiding, but did not keep her from writing Behud (Beyond Belief), 2010, a metadramatic comedy about a playwright trying to write a play about a traumatic event, whose characters take over from her in the course of the play.
The fourth and final conference day opened with a keynote speech by Nadine Holdsworth (University of Warwick) on the staging of treatments of riots in the recent British theatre. Following arguments proposed by Slavoj Žižek in his account of the 2011 riots in England and elsewhere, Holdsworth looked at the way dramatists like Gillian Slovo (The Riots, 2011) have dealt with the paradox that rioters are highly visible in the media through their actions but still remain invisible as individuals. By also looking at older plays which staged earlier riots, such as Trevor Griffiths‚ Oi for England (1982), Bryony Lavery’s Goliath (1997) and Robin Soans‚ Mixed Up North (2009), she showed how playwrights offer a counter-discourse to the dominant media coverage by individualising the „mob“ and thus move beyond the traditional identification of rioters as a disease of the body politic.
In the last conference panel, Ellen Redling (University of Heidelberg) contended that contemporary British theatre has largely moved away from suggesting political activism to emphasising argumentation and reflection, especially concerning complex national or global issues. She examined the ways in which the „viewing place“ of the theatron becomes a „thinking place“ in plays such as David Hare’s Stuff Happens (2004) and The Vertical Hour (2006) as well as Lucy Pebble’s Enron (2009) and Joe Penhall‘s Blue/Orange (2000). The post-millennial work of debbie tucker green became the focus in a talk by Nicola Abram (University of Reading), in which she interpreted the innovative aesthetic strategies for the handling of characters, language and stage form in the plays dirty butterfly (2003), born bad (2003), stoning mary (2005), trade (2005), generations (2007) and random (2008) as a positive political intervention for a world of enduring interpersonal connections. Finally, Rebecca Hillman (University of Reading) once more tackled the haunting question of what avenues there are for politically minded theatre today as the postmodern detachment from practical politics seems to prevail in the arts. By looking at recent performances by Mikron Theatre and Red Ladder, Hillman confronted the lack of a contemporary audience and appropriate critical framework for political theatre.
As for practical theatre experience and live performances, the 22nd annual CDE conference was nicely set during the final days of the international Prague Fringe Festival. This major event provided the perfect ambience for a conference on contemporary theatre and drama in English, as well as plenty of opportunity for conference delegates, after inspiring talks and lively discussion at the conference, to sample some exciting fringe theatre at the end of the day. All in all, Prague proved to be a more than fitting venue for a most fruitful and stimulating conference on the continued relevance of the political for contemporary theatre.
Mark Berninger (Bamberg)