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Catching up with the compelling landscape of political theatre both at home & in the US

Though I’ve spent most of the last nine months really missing the real theatre that has fuelled my life for the last 40 or so years since I started going compulsively from the age of around 16, I’ve spent more time than I’d have liked in a different kind of theatre — an operating one, when I had three spinal surgeries in the space of 15 days in September. And I’ve become particularly obsessed by another kind of theatre, too: political theatre.

The unending reality show TV drama of the Trump presidency had a spectacular denouement that none of us could have anticipated: an insurrection by his followers at Donald J Trump’s direct urging at the heart of American democracy. Today the Senate will open a trial, after he has already left office, on his fitness to have held that office, though the actual proceedings will then be suspended for a fortnight.

So we’re not quite done with the riveting political theatre of the Trump era yet. And as Washington DC went on lockdown last week, ahead of Biden’s inauguration, to prevent another attempted insurrection, the area around the Capitol was turned into a “Green Zone” as 25,000 National Guards established a well-defended area in the centre of Washington.

As Patrick Cockburn wrote in The Independent: “The overt purpose was to protect the inauguration of Joe Biden as president and US security agencies, caught on the hop by the invasion of the Capitol on 6 January, were busy slamming the stable door long after the immediate crisis was over. What we are seeing is political theatre, which is scarcely surprising since we have seen little else during Donald Trump’s four years in the White House. It is fitting that the end of the Trump presidency was marked by two events – the Capitol invasion and the exaggerated military response to it – that hover between theatre and reality.”

Meanwhile, back on home territory, the cultural philistinism and vandalism of Boris Johnson’s government is being exposed on a daily basis, as the arts and creative industries that bring in over £100 billion in revenues to the UK are thrown on the bonfire of vanities (and insanities) that is Brexit.

So it turns out the government, despite its denials, did indeed turn down the EU’s offer to strike a deal on visa-free visits being made there by UK musicians and other artists, despite their denials, as previously highlighted in this column two weeks ago.

Here’s a revealing anecdote on Boris Johnson’s (lack of) understanding, not just of his own deal (which is probably to be expected from our chronically lazy PM), but also of what work itself means. In a column for The Independent on Saturday, Katy Brand wrote: “[Boris Johnson] demonstrated his ignorance not only of his own deal, but also of the actual concept of ‘work’ when he told a parliamentary select committee that musicians still have the ‘right to go play in any EU country for 90 out of 180 days’. That the prime minister apparently doesn’t understand the difference between working abroad as a professional musician and hobby is telling. Perhaps he thinks everything is essentially a hobby. He certainly acts like it.”

In an interview with The Guardian‘s Xan Brooks last Friday, Judi Dench revealed that she’s just learnt a new word: synesthesia.

“And I thought; ‘Well, that’s me.’ Because I always saw the days of the week in colour. I never gave it a second thought, it’s just how my mind works. And all of a sudden it’s not there any more. The days of the week have no colour at all. There’s no structure, no planning.”

As Brooks comments, instead “she is marooned with her memories and mementoes and various unquiet ghosts”, including the ones summonsed by the character of Madame Arcati that she’s just played in the new film version of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit (whose mostly terrible reviews I itemised here last weekend).

Brooks writes that “Dench spent decades haunting the theatre herself – first in her home town of York, then at the Old Vic, then all over”; and of her unending passion for it: “She says that when she wasn’t on stage, she would hang about in the wings, simply watching the show, drinking in the experience. She loved the interaction with an audience, the endless possibilities; the sense that a play could change and grow over time and that no performance was the same as the last. It’s ironic, she says. She never especially wanted to be a film actor anyway. “Recently an American journalist said to me, ‘Oh, and I believe you did a little theatre as well’, and it was like an arrow going through my heart. I thought: ‘Oh dear, there goes the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, the 90s.’ Thousands of performances, gone in a flash.”

It’s a common mistake for film journalists to make. In 2017, I interviewed Denzel Washington when he was in London for twenty-four hours on a press junket to promote the new film version of August Wilson’s Fences (pictured above, with Viola Davis), where journalists were summonsed, for just five, ten or fifteen minute slots, into a temporary TV studio that has been installed in a hotel room at the Corinthia on Northumberland Avenue to meet him; the production company itself films the interview and gives the journalist the footage on a disc as they leave, thus saving the fuss and time of individual crews having to set up. I spent my allotted 15 minutes mainly discussing his theatrical rather than cinema pedigree, and he was utterly delighted. You can watch some of my interview here:


Amongst our exchanges that I reported in The Stage at the time:

You have a theatrical pedigree. This is the 40th year since you made your stage debut in summer stock theatre, isn’t it? Has it been 40 years? Yeah, there you go. You know more about me than I know about myself.

So theatre has been a large part of your life? No question, it was theatre first. My first two roles were The Emperor Jones and Othello. I never thought about movies. I started acting in the mid-1970s, when Mean Streets and Taxi Driver and Marathon Man were the kind of movies I was seeing as an actor. It was not like I grew up wanting to be an actor, I never thought about it, but I was introduced to acting through theatre. And fortunately, the first two plays I did were Eugene O’Neill and Shakespeare. So I was a snob before I knew it. I thought that one day I’d work on Broadway and earn $600 a week and that would be fine. It wasn’t the goal to get to Hollywood.

We recently had Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on at the National Theatre. That’s the one we are doing next. We are working on the screenplay now, with Ruben Santiago-Hudson who has also done as many of August’s plays as anyone. He knew August quite well, so I brought him in. We’re doing a skull session tomorrow [in New York], we will spend about six hours working on it. August’s estate came to me when I was doing A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway, and asked me to take care of his work.
So you’ve become the custodian of it?
That’s the word I was looking for – thank you, I’ll be using that. I said I’m just the man for the job – professionally that’s my life’s work at the moment. I may be able to squeeze in another movie here and there. Ideally, we’ll do one a year, but that may not be realistic. We’ll see how it works out.

That film version of Ma Rainey duly premiered last month on Netflix, produced by Washington and adapted by Santiago-Hudson; so perhaps he’s a bit off on his wish to do one Wilson play a year, but the project is on its way. As the line at the end of the first part of Angels in America has it, “The great work begins!”

from News, Reviews and Features – My Theatre Mates

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