Theatre is the most immediate artistic medium there is and, as a result, has the power to address current affairs head-on in almost real-time. So why doesn’t this always work, and what does a stage show have to do to succeed?
NOT LONG AFTER THE BREXIT VOTE, I saw My Country at London’s National Theatre, a verbatim play stitched together by Carol Ann Duffy, Britain’s poet laureate at the time. A matter of days after the referendum, a team from the NT started interviewing people of all ages, from different corners of the country, to collect perspectives and opinions. The result was a story of our United Kingdom, how divided our views can be, and what it means to be British in 2017. The play was fine, much more of an interesing experiment than a coherent work of art, but it serves as a fantastic example of both theatre’s ability to explore topical themes, and its ability to be staged in the moment.
This is a privilege that only theatre really has, but there are some exceptions in other forms of media. Also in 2017, mega-producer Ryan Murphy commissioned the seventh season of American Horror Story (subtitled ‘Cult’) to be set in the midst of the 2016 American Presidential Election, reaching screens under a year after the fact. Similarly, in film, Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman topline Bombshell, which dramatises the Roger Ailes scandal in the midst of #MeToo. Ailes was exposed shortly after his death in 2017; the film premiered in Los Angeles last month. But neither of those mediums have the ability to tell a story as quickly as the theatre does: in theory, you could deliver a performance on a topical matter to an audience in real-time.
This then boils down to a question of taste: can we comment on current affairs when we’re still in the midst of them unfolding, or do we wait until after the fact? Playwright James Graham wrote a television movie about political strategist Dominic Cummings, set in the lead up to Brexit, and it was immediately met with public cries of “too soon”, cries so loud in fact that Graham was forced to address them on Twitter when an early draft of the script leaked.
In my experience, making art out of a current topic is a fine line to walk and most pieces normally fall to the sub-par side: they end up being too on-the-nose, clawing, and reek of the writer’s perspective speaking through their writing. But two pieces on the London stage in the past month have made me abandon that angle altogether. For a while, anyway.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN was a smash-hit from the moment it premiered at Washington’s Arena Stage in 2015 and it finally landed in London last month, having picked up a Tony Award for Best Musical along the way. The story is a unique one, the kind of thing you’d hear on the back of a John Green novel: a teenage boy, struggling with loneliness and social anxiety, fakes a friendship with a boy in his class who’s commited suicide in an attempt to fit in and to clinch the girl he loves (said deceased boy’s sister). The cynic within me said I’d hate it (as did a few friends of mine who’d seen the show in New York), but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Dear Evan Hansen‘s greatest success isn’t its compelling narrative, but the way it chooses to tell it. The show’s first act climaxes when a video of Hansen giving a speech goes viral on Facebook, leading to the #YouWillBeFound movement across the web. Set designer David Korins has built a stage that embraces social media as though its a character in the story: LCD screens suspended above the stage show a slew of social media posts throughout the performance and, at the end of act one, show a relentless barrage of images depicting supporters of the movement. (Photos used for this sequence were submitted by fans of the show in advance of the American run.) The fact that the screens are always there, no matter what’s happening on stage, gives social media the constant looming presence it deserves, no matter how terrifying that thought may be.
But it’s not just the presence of social media that impresses in Dear Evan Hansen, it’s the way that the characters interact with it as well. At several points throughout the show, characters communicate via instant messaging services and texts, spoken aloud, facing out to the audience. Depicting texting has been a problem in all forms of media for a very long time – there has long been a debate about film’s inability to get it quite right – but Dear Evan Hansen succeeds by not overthinking it. The events shown couldn’t happen without social media, but never do you feel like social media is the explanation for everything going wrong. The devastation that occurs because of activity on social media is always created by a real person in control of it; the internet is the weapon that these young people weild.
More often than not, shows about Generation Z are made by older people (typically men) whose ideas of what a teenager goes through come across as being out-of-touch and, on occassion, patronising. A recent example might be Florian Zeller’s The Son, which recently ran at the Duke of York’s after a stint at the Kiln Theatre. One could argue that I didn’t connect with the show because it wasn’t to my taste, but I couldn’t help but be irritated by how overwhelmingly dramatic Nicolas’ plight into despression and isolation was; Zeller made Nicolas into a cliché of a grumpy teenager, exaccerbated to the extreme in a bid to convince the audience that he was really ‘going through it’. Dear Evan Hansen had the chance to take its central character in a very similar direction, but it chose not to, deciding instead to build a character who is wholly unique. Evan Hansen is a boy who manages to be in equal parts selfish and selfless, narcissitic and self-deprecating; the leading man and the best friend.
As I said on Twitter after seeing the show: “I loved [Dear Evan Hansen] so much that I’m almost surprised. It’s not only a brilliantly constructed, directed, designed and performed musical, but it also manages to be a perfect encapsulation of the late 2010s in a way that doesn’t feel cringey or patronising. So often do I see shows and think “why this? Why now?” … But Dear Evan Hansen deals with social media, loneliness, connectivity, lack of communication, grief, and so many other current themes in a way that starts a conversation to be taken away after the final bows. I really enjoyed it and I think it’s one of the few pieces of art that capture right now for us to look back on with hindsight in the future.”
AT LONDON’S OLD VIC THEATRE, a new play by Duncan Macmillan set about tackling the current climate crisis in hopes of inspiring thought, as opposed to commenting on what has come before. Lungs, which ran for three weeks last month and starred The Crown alums Claire Foy and Matt Smith, told the story of a couple in their early thirties trying to build a family with the planet in mind. What damage will having a baby have on the climate? How can they add another person to the relationship but remain sustainable? What is the point in bringing another person into this time of political unrest? Macmillan asks big questions and doesn’t offer answers, but instead asks the audience to watch what this pair choose to do, and then decide for themselves.
Unlike social media, climate change is a topic that requires comment and thought; at the end of the day, it’s activism. While Dear Evan Hansen didn’t deal with the looming pressures of Big Tech, Lungs explores ways in which its central characters can make small changes to reduce their carbon footprint. Unlike Dear Evan Hansen, which simply comments on technology, Lungs decides to put its modern foot forward, acting with shades of political theatre, willing you to make up your mind. Macmillan isn’t getting these characters to share their woes only to advance the story; they’re doing it to trigger the same kind of reaction in us, the audience.
Lungs succeeds because it never steps outside of the small world it builds for itself. Focusing only on these two characters and their normal, British lives, we’re treated to seeing the way that climate change can affect us: people living normal, British lives. There’s a common knowledge when it comes to politicians sharing pledges in their manifestos: don’t describe it on the big scale, tell a constituent exactly how it’s going to affect them. Lungs does this perfectly. Instead of telling us sweeping statements about how the world as a whole is going to fall apart, Macmillan makes sure to frame everything through the lenses of these characters, citing specific examples of how the climate crisis will personally affect them.
Most political plays run the risk of being alienating. More often than not, it’s hard to see the characters as individual people; when the writer’s voice is so loud, they end up sounding like megaphones through which the playwright shouts. Because Duncan Macmillan has offered two sides of the argument – one in each character, with some cross over in the middle; a talking venn diagram, if you will – he’s avoided that perfectly.
THEATRE HAS THE ABILITY to reflect our modern society in so many different and exciting ways. The world is changing whether we like it or not and I for one am tired of seeing a lack of plays addressing the issues we’re facing. In an era of fake news, Big Tech, climate change, and the dismantling of democracy, an alien would be forgiven for thinking that humans are falling apart. Writing that makes the problems we’re dealing with sound like a pretty juicy drama. Maybe somebody should write a play about that.