Bloody Poor Show: Why Is Theatre Failing to Address Contemporary Political Realities? with Few Notable Exceptions, Argues Ian Flintoff, Dramatists Have Forgotten the Language of Shock and Replaced It with Shocking Language

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Ideas aren't welcome on the British stage. Political ideas least of all. We are meant to be shocked by overused expletives and a bit of old-fashioned female nudity, as if teasing Mary Whitehouse were still the peak of invention.

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The bleakness is not total. Richard Norton-Taylor took a deserved bow in these pages for the important work he and Nicolas Kent have done at the Tricycle Theatre in north London, staging political time bombs such as the Stephen Lawrence case and the Hutton inquiry. And I was astounded by the audience reaction of shock and pain to David Hare's The Permanent Way, with its unflinching post-mortem on railway privatisation and human slaughter. Michael Frayn's Democracy is intelligent and illuminating, and Norton-Taylor's forthcoming work on the Bloody Sunday inquiry is to be welcomed. But such well-crafted and nonpatronising plays are rare, honourable exceptions to the rule of shallow titillation, rehash, social myopia and audience condescension. Intimes of great political moment such as our own, fresh and vigorous drama is the necessary antidote to the hypocrisy and fudge of those in power. In Britain today, our plays are for the most part dull and formulaic, self-esteeming, predictable and lazy.

It is not that long since Thomas Bernhard's Heldenplatz caused riots in the streets of Vienna by predicting the new rise of fascism. Arthur Miller punched the jaw of the McCarthy witch-hunts with The Crucible. Further back, the French acknowledged the plays of Beaumarchais as the drive to revolution. Vaclav Havel voiced political unrest in his plays before leading the velvet revolution. Shaw, Ibsen, Granville Barker and the plays of the Royal Court in the 1950s and 1960s forced Britain to take a good look at its political self. Plays are, and should be, dangerous. Today they are not.

We have Hollywood movie stars queuing to undress on London stages in the manner of old-fashioned end-of-pier peep-shows. We have characters who say "fuck" rather than become embroiled in the real world of political upheaval. "Fuck" is generally the height of our attempts to shock. Compare the pages of this magazine or any other of serious concern with the content of stage drama and you could be forgiven for believing that the producers of the latter lived in Wonderland. There are no plays about Britain's harshly divided society, about our unhealthy and compromising subservience to the US, about the gross disparities of wealth now equalled only in the third world. No plays about the failures of 1960s feminism for the majority of underprivileged women. No plays about the turbulent incomprehensibilities between the sexes. And though we have been in the European Union for 30 years, there has been no drama that is truly touched by this or responsive to it. Even the negativity is surely a source for examination. We remain culturally isolated, worse linguists than we were in 1973.

For most of our drama on stage and screen, a four-letter rigor mortis set in more than a decade ago. We are often presented with moving graffiti and nothing more. Which is not to say that drama should be a mere offshoot of politics. Far from that, it should be a searchlight and examiner. It should move more with the real-life political dramas of its time, and less with the finite and infantile shock horror of easy sex and violence. David Hare's take on Iraq, Stuff Happens, due soon at the National, sounds encouraging. …