A bit of a fine mess: 'Vassa' at the Almeida. Photo by Marc Brenner
On Theatre

Default, to a fault

Where are the plays that challenge the orthodoxy of left-liberal groupthink?

The theatre has a long history of empathy with left-wing causes — so much so that Nicholas Hytner, when running the National Theatre, cried out for a “good, mischievous right-wing play” (just the one, mind you) to leaven the mix. A number of reasons present themselves for the left-of-centre default mode. The first is a reasonable one, namely that a work written to be performed in the moment thrives on challenging the world around it. That, however, suggests that it should also challenge areas and institutions where there is dominance of left or left-liberal biases, which it plainly does not (often because it is unaware they are an opinion, not a fact). The second is that the patronage of public subsidy has replaced the power of court patronage — and even private co-funding of theatres is viewed as a kind of tribute exacted to make up for bad behaviour.

But today’s stage anti-capitalism feels more dogged. The pipeline of conservative ideas on stage (even those with the smallest c, such as Sir Tom Stoppard’s dogged defence of individuals against the constraints of collective culture), has thinned out — possibly as a result of the now overwhelming left-liberal bias of arts education in schools and universities.

Something else has changed too. Whether in fresh work or adaptation, I find myself watching some very talented young directors and writers overwhelmingly writing to a similar political script, which tells us that capitalism is the fundamental problem of our conditions: a blend of soft-Corbynism and identity politics.

You might argue that this is a return, after the blight of the financial crash, to the theatrical socialist tradition of Bertolt Brecht and Joan Littlewood. Brecht certainly saw the economics of capitalism as fundamentally at odds with human welfare, though there is also a quirkiness to his vision of the “topsy-turvy judge” (Azdak in The Caucasian Chalk Circle) or the hapless gods in The Good Person of Szechwan who, like a celestial House of Lords, look mighty but cannot help Shen Teh when exploitation bites and drives her to prostitution (or unlicensed sex-work, as we would say at the Royal Court).

Littlewood, as Ken Tynan observed, thumbed her nose at middle-class attitudes to working-class characters: “When the theatre presents poor people as good, we call it ‘sentimental’. When it presents them as wicked, we sniff and cry ‘squalid’.”

The 2019 equivalent is less about the sweep of Brecht’s erratic, inventive Marxism or Littlewood’s feisty anger than a desire to tell us that capitalism must be on its way out because its conditions and disruptions — from Donald Trump to Brexit, Boris Johnson or any “neo-liberals” who defend free markets — feel inconvenient and are thus derided, rather than explored with much insight.

A bit of a fine mess in this department is Vassa at Islington’s Almeida — a freewheeling version of Maxim Gorky’s messy, energetic 1909 play Vassa Zheleznova, in an adaptation by Mike Bartlett, an adept chronicler of dysfunctional families from King Charles III to Dr Foster. “Capitalism is showing its age” is the motto above the stage. This production, directed by Tinuke Craig, tackles the tragi-comic decline of a mercantile family as the motherland careers towards a Bolshevik takeover. The arc we are intended to draw is that families would be better off if they were more socialist in design — hives of equality and redistribution, rather than capitalism hierarchies.

This is a stretch, since most of our own semi-happy families are surely both at once and the balance is what makes life good or bad. And if matriarchy is the problem in this view of Gorky, where does it fit with the hated patriarchy today? The problem with tacking today’s anti-capitalism onto the 1909 kind is that it is hard to feel much excitement about a coming revolution once you remember that it leads to Gorky, the ultimate pro-Soviet writer in 1917, dying under house arrest by the NKVD in the 1930s.

At Chichester and then Manchester’s Lowry Theatre, Cordelia Lynn also has a Woke-ist take on Hedda Gabler, reincarnated as Hedda Tesman, which projects what might have happened had the anti-heroine survived for a further 30 years.

Lynn weaves a sly take on the drive for individual advancement through the grim parable of Hedda, with some odd additions. The shadowy presence of the servant Bertha is transmogrified into that of an agency cleaner, delivering speeches about the difficulties of getting childcare and the living wage Perhaps it was, as suggested in a looming paternal portrait, imperialist male dominance that set Hedda on the path to disaster. But the great works, even as they channel the flows and eddies of politics, economics and society, are always about more than a set list of grievances imposed onto characters. They also require writers and directors to step outside their groupthink and risk work that will be around long after the politics of the day have dimmed. It’s more likely than not there will still be some capitalism to attend to.

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