The Royal Court Theatre and The Guardian teamed up at the end of last year to produce a series of microplays exploring poignant issues of modern-day Britain. Each play is only a few minutes long, but many of theatre’s most electric playwrights and directors have worked together to make every second burst with precarious ideas of what makes our nation tick, and what explosive tensions lurk beneath the murky waters of our culture.
The collaboration is significant in itself. There is a slippery tightrope between theatre and journalism: both are connected by a fierce desire to find out what people are thinking and feeling, to have their voices heard on current issues, and to be the ones to say it first. The project, aptly titled “Off the Page”, has been described by the newspaper as ‘an extension of The Guardian’s journalism’. The idea was to create theatre responding to six areas of the newspaper’s coverage: politics, food, education, sport, music, and fashion.
The first microplay, Britain Isn’t Eating, satirised our nation’s attitudes towards food poverty and the cost of eating. It was written by Laura Wade (Posh) who conducted numerous conversations with The Guardian’s social affairs and food writers. Katherine Parkinson (The IT Crowd) stars as a politician advocating that people should stop complaining about food prices, and be more resourceful with what they have in their cupboards. She discovers the truth the hard way when she is invited to cook a meal live on air with tragically limited ingredients and appliances. Carrie Cracknell, who recently directed the National’s revival of Medea, helmed the play. Parkinson wonderfully epitomises a stereotypical politician’s lack of empathy with food poverty; she is constantly fighting the urge to scream with frustration but knows that she must continue to smile gracefully and optimistically. Appearance is everything. As she berates the ‘laziness’ of benefit-fueled citizens (who she claims “exaggerate their circumstances”) reliant upon food vouchers and tokens to survive, we see her crack. She knows that she has no idea of what it’s like to be in such dire poverty. Cracknell then diverts our attention to the room next door. Parkinson enters as a different character: a desperate and destitute woman carrying her meager shopping in a dirty cardboard box. She slumps down, staring blankly into space in despair, and then she looks right at us. This is poverty. We can feel her desperation piercing right through us. The two women could so easily be living in the other’s shoes if it weren’t for their respective social classes.
In PPE, playwright Tim Rice shows us the extraordinary but ultimately feigned and performative lengths politicians will go to in order to convince their constituents of their sincerity. Based on the idiosyncratic habits of real politicians such as Nigel Farage’s laugh and David Cameron’s hand movements, the microplay is a work of physical theatre and expressive movement. We see three suited individuals: a white man, a black man, and a woman, representing three very different ideologies, yet all conforming to the same cheap ploys of performativity. The actors become immersed in a robotic routine of head shaking, broad smiles, hand waves, and rigid gestures to represent the monotony of a politician’s tactics. Standing behind them are ordinary people. These people have come to hear the politicians speak, but they are greeted with a rehearsed and disingenuous rhythm. The politicians hone in on the citizens, sweeping them up in indifferent hand movements, wiping away any scepticism with assuring belly laughs. We know that what we are seeing is false, but we are not sure that people are seeing the façade. The politicians win, embroiling innocent citizens in their web of structured deceit, all to the droning, incessant chime of a semi-computerised score, but it isn’t all so bleak. At the last moment, a young girl enters. She is peripheral to the main stage; she is yet to be absorbed by these politicians and their promises. She dances to her own music, separate from the others. What is Rice telling us here? Is there still hope – or will this little girl too one day be engulfed by the political jargon? We cannot know.
In Death of England, a nine minute play about the nation’s identity crisis, we find ourselves at a funeral. Writer Roy Williams turns a time for private mourning into a chance for public mourning, with the deceased’s son taking to the stage and committing to a terrible diatribe about the sorry state of Britain’s immigration. Rafe Spall plays this young man fantastically, capturing the erratic and mercurial voices of our nation’s aggressors. He uses his father’s ignorant opinions to propel his own argument. The director, Clint Dyer, moves us back and forth between Spall’s character and the other mourners. Despite their disgusted and shocked reactions to his brutal honesty, something is making them stay. Perhaps it’s that they agree with him, deep down.
The microplay is certainly a fascinating concept. We see and hear so much in such a short time. What is perhaps most especially handy about them is that they have been filmed and uploaded online to be readily available to anybody for free. You can watch them on the train, at the gym, in the comfort of your own home, all within the space of a few minutes. Is this the future for a culture deficient in attention spans? There is a sense of urgency to the pent-up arguments and opinions. The tiny length of each play only strengthens the need to act fast, to get out into the world and make a difference. This collaboration has proved both productive and poignant. These are characters we have seen many times before, but never so concentrated, never so confined to such a bleakly restricted and tight space of time. Yes, they are shamelessly didactic, but they undeniably work in making their point resoundingly clear. Their compact and to-the-point effectiveness prompts one simple question: is this the future of theatre?