Cutting the Tightrope: the divorce of Politics and Art

Hassan Abdulrazzak, Mojisola Adebayo, Phillip Arditti, Sonali Bhattacharyya, Nina Bowers, Roxy Cook, Ed Edwards, Afsaneh Gray, Dawn King, Ahmed Masoud, Nina Segal, Sami Abu Wardeh
ADMA Productions in association with Offstage Theatre
Arcola Theatre, London

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Cutting the Tightrope: the divorce of Politics and Art

A six-year-old girl in Gaza murdered by Israeli snipers asks a theatre to mount a play she has written about her death. The non-violent American Rachel Corrie standing in front of a doctor's home in Rafah is crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer.

The decapitated head of Ahmadullah Shah, killed in India while rebelling against the British Empire, discusses the tyranny of Britain with one of the British. A black woman MP in Parliament, which is described as “the house of Jo Cox who was murdered by a white supremacist”, stands 46 times to speak in a debate about a rich man saying she “should be shot” and is ignored. She wonders what would happen if she had said the rich man “should be shot.”

These are moments from four of eleven short plays from twelve writers performed as part of Cutting the Tightrope: The Divorce of Politics from Art. The press release states that the writers are listed without identifying “who wrote which play” to allow them “freedom of expression without fear.”

A panel discussion follows each show. Among the panellists on different evenings are Palestinians, the comedian Mark Thomas, Barnaby Raine and the anti-apartheid activist Andrew Feinstein, the son of Holocaust survivors.

The production was partly prompted by Arts Council England’s guidance that political statements by organisations or individuals linked to a theatre could lose that theatre funding from public bodies. Although there was a backlash against the statement, it added to the political timidity of theatres. In Dare Not Speak, we see a theatre manager rejecting plays about social issues and going for a story about a pet hamster.

Managements are mocked further in Watermelon, split into three parts across the evening. A white theatre boss opens the performance by apologising for a comedian using a watermelon in his show. Alerted by the Daily Mail to the “racist” overtones this might carry, the theatre is to take action against the Watermelon. He admits he feels quite strongly about this issue because of his own experience of racial oppression as a man of Scottish heritage. Unfortunately, he can’t seem to catch the man with the watermelon who occasionally dances across the stage.

The discouragement of artists doesn't just come from theatre management and ACE. In Catch-up, a mother becomes very irritated with her son trying to write about genocide in Gaza, pointing out that he is Jewish, “so it’s nothing to do with you.”

A situation which must be typical to many people is a young woman’s visit with her partner to meet his parents in Suitable Subjects. Although they want to get to know her, the conversation becomes awkward as she mentions her activism around Palestine and climate change. The evening ends with them settling for her opinion of the wine she is drinking.

The Florist of Rafah speaks to the suffering endured by so many at the moment as he describes the killing of family members and the terrifying separation from his small child when they come under fire from Israeli snipers

Another Person’s Face reminds us of the unsettling, empathetic possibilities of theatre. A woman describes seeing footage of a woman being shot who “looks just like me” and a starving woman in Gaza who looks “like my niece”.

In the powerfully distinctive play 46 Women Attempt a Question, women from different parts of the audience rise from their seats and ask short, forceful, often lyrical questions that early on refer to the mistreatment of the Member of Parliament Diane Abbott. Among the questions they ask are, “Why don’t Black Lives Matter?” To conclude this very moving performance, a woman asks, “How many have to die before we say ceasefire?”

Theatre can connect us to struggle across history and time. The final play, Cardiac Arrest, takes us to the protests by miners, socialists and a women's group against the Home Secretary during the Miners' Strike of 1985, when police viciously beat and arrested protesters.

We move through struggles from Ireland to Vietnam and hear of Bobby Sands, Angela Davis and others who have fought for freedom. We are reminded of the UK's tendency to invade and “destroy” other countries such as Afghanistan.

The speaker finishes with the words, “Free Palestine”.

This production is part of the determination of many in theatre to allow such things to be said on stage and to show compassion for those suffering in places like Palestine.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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