Over a decade ago, the departing Director of the National Theatre, Sir Nicholas Hytner, acknowledged how homogenous political theatre was in danger of becoming, expressing his hope that someone might write “a good, mischievous, right-wing play”.
Our premier political playwright, James Graham, chooses to keep his personal politics to himself, but there is no mistaking the respect and affection with which he treats traditional Labour in his superb play “This House”. Certainly, he, in common with the likes of David Hare or David Edgar, has never written anything that might be dubbed a “right-wing” play.
I don’t mean – and I am certain Hytner also didn’t – a wearisome alt-right polemic, merely a different vantage point from the increasingly well-worn, indeed near-ubiquitous, theatre pieces that “expose the manifest injustices and inhumanity of [insert Tory policy here]”.
I am a one-time Conservative parliamentary candidate and my first play, “An Honourable Man”, is now in the final week of its three-week run at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington (at the time of writing, a handful of tickets remain). It’s not for me to say whether or not the play is “good”: a great many people seem to think it is (though others disagree – see below), but it is most certainly intended to be mischievous.
This first experience of play-writing has been quite some roller-coaster ride. It won’t surprise anyone to be told that the personnel of theatre tend to lean to the left just as much as the writing does, so I was well aware I would be sticking my head above the parapet by chancing my arm in their world.
All the old hands counsel, “don’t read the reviews” (at least until the run is over), but, believe me, you do read them. We have had some excellent ones and some encouraging ones, some indifferent ones and also some outright hostile ones. I have been extremely fortunate in my cast of six – all are excellent and the lead, Timothy Harker, has deservedly received a prestigious award nomination for his superb performance.
What has attracted opprobrium is nothing they have done, rather the political context and content of the piece – and my (sometimes cold, sometimes satirical) depiction of a political world I really do know all too well. In particular, I have been vigorously criticised for raising the spectre of people’s fears about immigration – precisely those fears (as a very significant piece of polling by Lord Ashcroft adumbrated five years ago) that underpinned the 2016 vote for Brexit.
The brutal fact is, in June 2016 the political status quo was rejected by 17 million voters and they had their reasons. I believe passionately that, if this country is to have any chance at all of moving forward from its current existential crisis, even in a pro-Remain, Labour stronghold such as Lambeth, no, especially in such a location, some brutal truths about modern life do need to be faced; and theatre is precisely the appropriate “safe space” in which to do so.
My play charts the rapid political rise of a hitherto unknown Labour politician (Joe Newman) who, ousted by Momentum, ploughs his own furrow and sets up a new political movement that strongly echoes the 2016 Leave campaign: he proclaims the pressing need for a strong reassertion of national pride and tough policies on immigration, combined with a generous programme of investment in public services.
He at once recognises the limits of potential Tory support in traditional Labour heartlands, and capitalises on Labour’s “towns problem” – its increasing lack of connection with traditional, white, working-class voters – to some degree at least mirroring the 2017 Tory manifesto, which alienated Hampstead but turned Mansfield and parts of Stoke and Middlesbrough blue. In effect, my response to all the talk of a realignment creating a new “Democrats-style” party here in the UK is to posit that, perhaps, we might find ourselves with a “Republican-style” party first, built on the still-fresh foundations of the unprecedented coalition that delivered the 17 million-strong Leave vote in 2016.
This scenario certainly qualifies as “mischievous”, but is it really “right wing”? Not necessarily, yet there have been audible gasps in the room when Newman’s actress friend Liz – our principal proxy for everyone on the contemporary liberal-left – says she is “appalled” by her friend’s incipient anti-immigration stance. “Appalled?” interrupts Newman’s influential staffer Anne. “Appalled that the descendants of the people who built this country, who fought and died for it… Appalled that they want it back?”
This may make people uncomfortable, but the fact is, it is how millions of people feel – and simply shutting out such sentiments, or lazily denouncing them from the comfort of a well-paid professional or public-sector job within the M25, does not make those sentiments vanish in a puff of rhetorical smoke. Au contraire. Whether this sense of alienation and sheer grumpiness is uttered in a working men’s club in Easington or a golf club in Haslemere (and I am well aware people are likely to be more indulgent about the former), it has been in the ascendant in recent times.
As that same character, Anne, puts it in the play:
“Millions of people… have been on retreat all their lives… The pits have closed, the factories have gone, their High Streets are ghost towns… Since the last war, their way of life has been completely laid to waste – and once, just for once, they were able to come together and be on the winning side… in the referendum… and who can begrudge them that? For once they won – and they won’t let that go. Nor should they”.
After decades of political campaigning, it has taken a major adjustment of mind-set for me to switch from practised advocacy of policies to a more detached representation of them. No single one of the six characters on my stage could ever claim speak for everyone, but each of them approximately represents a segment of the political spectrum, ranging from the orthodoxies of the modern liberal left to Old Labour, to Brexit and beyond.
If theatre has any value at all, it must challenge our views, not just reinforce them. It should change perceptions, not serve to ossify them. If it becomes merely a cosy, cosmopolitan echo chamber for virtue-signalling, it might as well be dead. So, please come and see our play, while you still can. If you agree with any of its messages, that’s wonderful. If you don’t – well, that’s just fine and dandy too. The play’s the thing!