Monday, 24 November 2014

Guest Blog: Can theatre ever be up to date?

Dan Phillips
Earlier this year Nick Hytner and The National Theatre announced a controversial new production just days before its first performance. The play, Great Britain, penned by Richard Bean (One Man Two Guvners, Made in Dagenham) explored the phone hacking scandal and raised eyebrows as the issue was still ongoing. 

This is perhaps the most up to date production in recent history, cashing in on the subject of previous weeks to create a sharp and very present representation. However, could this have been done anywhere other than The National Theatre? 

Theatre is notorious for its inability to move quickly from pre-production to opening night. Only somewhere with the manpower, readily available space and money could put together a production like this in the time it took, and all under the radar. The issue of this, of course, is the regular development of the script and continuous ambiguity to the outcome of the story, creating what some see as a watered down or slapdash ending to the play. Despite Great Britain’s impressive ticket sales when at The Lyttelton Theatre, some critics couldn’t help feel that the piece felt a little rushed. 

Look instead at a television programme such as South Park, an animated series which has become famous for its radically up to date satirising of American politics and celebrity culture due to its week turnaround from writing to distribution. This seems to work simply by its maker’s confidence to make something on a very tight schedule. Maybe this is the sort of thing that can be fed into theatres. Take for example the Old Vic’s annual 24 hour play system which allows directors, writers and actors to create and present new work in 24 hours. Here is the freedom to explore ideas and not have the pressure of being polished. 

Dan in rehearsals
My most recent production, Warehouse of Dreams, came up against some of these issues, as a play that is very much about an issue happening across the world. 

Set in a refugee camp in the Middle East, Warehouse of Dreams is a commentary on the politics of running a government-funded camp during a civil war. The play was inspired by writer Chuck Anderson’s trip to Syria back in 2011 when the conflict that now fills our news channels was just beginning. A couple of years later he decided that the best way to look at these issues and challenge the western preconceptions was to produce a piece of theatre based heavily on the real life Syrian camp of Zataari. When I came to the project the script was still in early stages of development but we knew we had to get the piece to the public fairly quickly in order to make a political point whilst there was still the relevance to make it. 

Unlike the phone hacking scandal, the workings of refugee camps is a subject that the majority of our society know very little if not nothing about, forcing our hands to offer perhaps more exposition than many other topics would initially need in order for the story to be told. This has been one of our major criticisms. However it might be argued that if we had not made the effort to educate our audience then the importance of our subject matter would have lost a lot of its gravitas. 

Working on a subject which is very topical is incredibly satisfying. However, due to the speed in which you have to move in order to make it happen at the right time, you have to compromise a little. For us it was a large global push from writer Neil Gaimon to raise extra money for the UNHCR as the Syrian forces continue to push civilians out of their homes and into these temporary cities like Zataari,  

Maybe more theatre needs to take risks and say things that need saying quickly and bluntly without the pressure of artistic perfection. In my time with audiences it has become clear that Warehouse of Dreams is sparking debate and creating the kind of discussions that flag up the workings of the UNHCR and whether they really are doing what is best for the refugees or what is better for our collective western conscience, and that is far more artistically interesting than a flawless script, in a pristine production that comes two years too late. 

Dan Phillips

Warehouse of Dreams runs at The Lion and Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town until 6th December  2014. 

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