In light of recent events, there’s perhaps no topic more relevant than freedom of expression within the arts, and the question of exactly how far one can, or should, go in the name of art is on everyone’s lips. Is it still art when it offends? When it ridicules? When it violates? These are all questions facing the audience of WALKING THE TIGHTROPE – THE TENSION BETWEEN ART AND POLITICS.
This production is a collaboration of Offstage Theatre’s fascination with brave storytelling and Theatre Uncut’s desire to incite political conversations. The evening comprises twelve short plays penned by tour-de-force playwrights such as Mark Ravenhill, Caryl Churchill, April de Angelis and Neil LaBute, rounding off with a post-show panel discussion. It’s a great project and the director-curator, Cressida Brown, should be delighted with what she’s achieved. Getting these playwrights, all huge names in the industry, involved in something like this and having their work co-exist in this way is remarkable. The pieces themselves are all excellently written and played to their full potential by an intrepid cast. Covering subjects from apartheid-era exclusion to the boycott of the infamous Exhibit B installation at the Barbican, to censorship and issues surrounding arts funding, the plays strongly demonstrate the power that one stimulus can have to generate a range of ideas and opinions.
With productions like this, there will always be some works that strike home with the viewer more than others. My particular favourites in this case are RE:EXHIBIT by Gbolahan Obisesan, FAUST FOR KIDS by Hattie Naylor and PLEASE FORGIVE US WHOEVER YOU ARE by Ryan Craig. The latter, a dynamic monologue delivered solely by the very versatile Stephen Fewell is especially effective. The performances of Naomi Ackie and Melissa Woodbridge throughout also deserve high commendation, but they are particularly brilliant as the conflicting actor and producer in RE:EXHIBIT.
There is one play, however, that I really struggled with. Not because it was badly written or poorly performed (on the contrary!) but because I found it incredibly hard to watch. Neil LaBute’s EXHIBIT A is fundamentally about how we define art and where we draw the line, showing Syrus Lowe’s character sexually abusing a young woman and claiming it to be “art”. The piece, in my opinion, also questions the depiction of sexual violence on stage – does it encourage positive action against the issue or does it make us complicit voyeurs?
WALKING THE TIGHTROPE generates discussion but for those discussions to be useful and healthy, they must move beyond and survive outside this one performance space. How can that happen? Well selected works from the production will be available for rights-free performance from 2nd – 9th February, a hallmark of all Theatre Uncut shows which maximises creative access and political action.
Sitting in the black box of Theatre Delicatessen in Farringdon, WALKING THE TIGHTROPE is, at face value, an intimate affair. But the project transcends such physical barriers; we are living with the issues in these plays – they are real and we can’t escape them. You become part of a much larger and greater discourse by simply being in the audience.
(C) Hannah Roe, 2015
WALKING THE TIGHTROPE - THE TENSION BETWEEN ART AND POLITICS
An Offstage Theatre Production in association with Theatre Uncut
Hosted by Theatre Delicatessen
Farringdon Road, London, EC1R 3DA
26th January – 1nd February (Mon – Sat: 7.30pm, Sat Matinee: 2pm, Sun: 4pm)
Running time: 2hrs including interval and panel discussion
Directors: Cressida Brown and Kirsty Housley
Assistant Director: Grace Gummer
Lighting Designer: Richard Williamson
Sound Designer: Daniel Balfour
Dramaturg: Emma Callander
Stage Manager: Phillip Dundee
Press Officer: Laura Horton
Producer: Ruby Glaskin
Producing Assistant: Anna Plasburg-Hill
Cast: Naomi Ackie, Philip Arditti, Stephen Fewell, Becci Gemmell, Syrus Lowe, Melissa Woodbridge
Writers: Caryl Churchill, Ryan Craig, April de Angelis, Tim Fountain, Hannah Khalil, Neil LaBute, Hattie Naylor, Gbolahan Obisesan, Julia Pascal, Evan Placey, Mark Ravenhill, Sarah Solemani