Politics and theatre – two sides of the same coin

2 September 2013

RTP Programme CoverI recently was privileged to see a new stage production of Robert Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The original book, written a hundred years ago, lifted the lid on the life of working people in the earlier years of the last century in an unprecedented way. The story of daily relentless challenge and exploitation sustained by deference to capitalism so deeply ingrained that the characters could not – and in many cases, did not want to – break free.

The play by Tom McLennan, at an hour and a quarter long, is a good deal more accessible than the book, which comes in at more than 1,000 pages in its original edition. The production was by Wirral Young Labour and put on at the Wirral Youth Theatre. It really was excellent, but not just because of the graphic, inescapable similarities between the conditions for working people a hundred years ago and those that exist today.

Nor was it remarkable just for the quality of the production, although the cast and crew would not have disgraced themselves in comparison to professionals.

No, what was most impressive about this event are the things that happened off-stage. Let me explain:

First, the venue: Wirral Youth Theatre doesn’t look much from the outside. Almost like a small warehouse, or light industrial facility. It’s on backstreet off Hamilton Square in Birkenhead. But it is the most amazing place, a real community resource being fully used by and for the community. In an era where public funding for arts is very hard to come by (and almost impossible for anything deemed to be “political”), and where you frequently have to pay through the nose to get decent accommodation, the value of this asset cannot be over-estimated.

RTP Programme picsSecond, the team themselves: These were all young people – many still at school. They showed more graphically than any government statistic or glib celebrity comment what can be done. The focus, skill, determination and commitment and self-belief to deliver this production is both impressive and important.

And its importance is because the motivation from start to finish was political.

The common bond amongst everyone involved is that a better future is possible and they were keen and determined to play their part in making it happen.

Third, support: It is clearly a dead end to have great ideas, but no means of putting them into place. That’s why the support of youth workers based at the theatre and senior figures from the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA) was an essential part of the ingredients. So too the support from many organisation including the CWU, CWUYouth and UNITE.

Fourth, this was a new way of looking at a key part of the political process; fundraising. The producers were fed up with fundraising opportunities that involved people paying large sums of money to hear keynote speeches following a very mediocre dinner. You got into this production by paying what you thought your ticket was worth, or what you could afford. That over the three nights nearly 600 people raised a total of £8,400, makes the point more than eloquently.

People may query why the union wishes to be involved such events. My answer – and that of the National Youth Committee who decided to donate to the charities being supported by the production – is that such a question is misplaced.

Art – theatre – is politics. You can’t take the theatre or any other art form out of the environment in which it is created and absorbed. And good art moves people; in that sense it is almost subversive. That is why freedom of expression is so highly prized and widely suppressed in times of trouble. You can have all the facts and figures you like and your mind will be made up on the basis of those. But art, like the Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, involves feelings and emotions and is those that will make people act (no pun intended).

So both in theory and practice, the Wirral Young Labour’s production of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropist is exactly what we in the union and in CWU youth want to see much more of – youth engagement, collective action, innovative thinking, political purpose.

Well done to producers Matt Patrick and Holly Higgins, director Matt Houghton, and all those involved. More please!

Background to the book is athttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ragged-Trousered_Philanthropists

Free ecopy of the book is available fromhttp://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3608

Producer Matt Patrick wrote about the play for CWUYouth –http://www.cwuyouth.org/view-blog.html?blog_id=339

Wirral Young Labour can be reached throughhttp://nwyl.co.uk/merseyside/

And the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA) can be found athttp://www.lipa.ac.uk/