Theatre in Times of Crisis
Dom O’Hanlon (ed)
It has not taken Methuen Drama very long to compile a book that was inspired, if that is the right word, by events of the last few months.
Following an initial introduction by Edward Bond, including a brief extract from his next play, editor Dom O’Hanlon has taken a somewhat formulaic approach to his subject. He has asked 20 playwrights practising in Britain to provide excerpts from works that speak to the topic of the title.
Each extract is prefaced by responses to a series of questions about crises in and beyond the theatre that are the same in almost every case, which can lead to a degree of repetition in the answers as well. Of these, one of the most comprehensive and thoughtful is that from Simon Stephens, accompanying an excerpt from his play Motortown.
Crisis is interpreted in different ways by these playwrights. The timeliest pieces are those that address current issues, obviously the coronavirus pandemic that closed theatres in March and, after a brief interregnum at certain venues, has just done so again. Beyond that, perhaps the most prevalent topic is the Black Lives Matter movement and its response to the death of George Floyd. Given those contexts, there are number of pieces that really do catch the moment, more or less directly.
The opening effort, The Interrogation of Sandra Bland by Mojisola Adebayo, is the only complete (short) play in the book. It is a verbatim work that allows readers to eavesdrop on what ought to be an unbelievable meeting between a sadistic American police officer and an African-American woman who, having been pulled over for a technicality, a few days later was found hanged in a police cell.
The King of Hell’s Palace by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig is set in China but addresses universal issues through a tale of impoverished peasants forced to sell their blood and, eventually, their lives in an attempt to stay afloat financially. One feels that, with unemployment set to hit record levels soon, many workers across the globe may be faced with similarly difficult decisions.
James Graham’s A History of Falling Things might be quirky but fits the bill perfectly, since its central characters are both effectively locked in, albeit not because of a pandemic but due to a shared phobia.
Lions and Tigers by Tanika Gupta harks back to the days of the Raj and once again looks at the relationship between a domineering police officer and a rebelling native; as it happens, the latter was the playwright’s great-uncle.
X by Alistair McDowell is strong on enforced isolation and the contemplation of untimely death, following the interactions of a group of people trapped on a spaceship.
With its focus on a pair of clinical research volunteers taking part in a potentially dangerous medical experiment, Lucy Prebble’s The Effect could hardly seem more topical.
Where We Live Now by Christopher Shinn embraces two crises simultaneously, as a pair of gay men have an encounter in the wake of 9/11 and AIDS.
Theatre in Times of Crisis is very much geared towards academics and students, although general readers might enjoy the chance to sample writing by a wide variety of contemporary playwrights.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher