Somewhat unusually, and rather brilliantly, I saw two theatre shows in succession this week.
The first was Pressure Drop, at Wellcome Collection, which is a show that tries to explore fairly where the British National Party gets its support in places like Barking and Dagenham – it ‘stars’ Billy Bragg and band as a self-described Greek Chorus (ie bankrupt) helping to manoeuvre audiences with wit and elan as well as providing musical accompaniment. I saw it on the night of the General Election, which added to the piquancy, but as it turns out, did not lead to Barking and Dagenham being labelled the fascist capital of Britain (I wonder where is…).
I enjoyed the play – the dialogue was pretty snappy and there were some nice theatrical devices. There were some weaknesses too, mostly to do with plot and characterisation – not in the performance, which was strong, but in the play’s structure. Without wanting to commit plot spoiler crimes, the protagonist must decide whether or not he will stand as a BNP candidate in a forthcoming election. His decision not to stand was taken off-stage, and felt more like the requirement of the liberal ethos of the production team than a reasonable and motivated action for that character.
So while I was relieved that the (f)act of liberal arts types representing working-class BNP supporters on stage did not result in a patronising or moralistic tone, I was unsatisfied with the conclusion. And there was also an unresolved tension between the empathy we were allowed to have for the right-wing characters on stage and the assuredly left-wing stance of Bragg’s song lyrics.
I stayed for the after-show discussion that night, and it was striking to me that while the protagonist’s decision not to stand was apparently based on his son’s criticism of the BNP supporters’ ‘certainty’ in their racist views (and actions), Bragg’s political stance is no less certain. In terms of political theory, is the ‘certainty’ of the BNP only offensive because we (soft liberal lefties) disagree so much with their view? It seemed an odd point on which to hinge the play’s intellectual argument against a group/movement that has so many other weak points to attack.
The very next night I saw – in unplanned contrast to the first – a play about seeking asylum in the UK. Devised by a friend of mine and her company Strike A Chord Theatre, it was the result of two weeks of devising work (and apparently two years of research and preparation). The operating premise of the company seems to be to use music, sound and movement instead of spoken dialogue. I am not entirely comfortable with that approach being a given before tackling any chosen story or theme, but it was definitely an effective and appropriate way to tell the story of an asylum seeker.
Each character communicated through an instrument, or through the rhythms of physical movement (dance, perhaps), or through musical vocalisations (songs). It was at times powerful, at times banal – but this was a ‘scratch’ performance to show the results of their fortnight of labours and an effort to attract funding and/or partners to take the show into the next stage of development. I hope they secure some money for it, because if they make good decisions about how best to use their musical approach to tell this story – and commit to those decisions – it could be a very good piece of sociopolitical theatre – and how much of that is there around these days?!