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FEATURE: Anne Washburn and James Graham: Writing Political Theatre

Supplementary talks have become an increasingly useful way for theatres to open out their productions, giving the audience greater context on the creative process as well as an additional income stream. Some venues have long-standing programmes of curated events including the focused National Theatre Platforms or The Old Vic Voices Off talks in which selected cast members and more often the crew talk about their role in the artistic process. Free after-show Q&As are becoming a more regular feature across theatreland, while Ian McKellan’s latest tour essentially evolved from an impromptu talk he gave in place of a cancelled King Lear matinee.

The Almeida’s latest production is Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck the first major play dedicated to the Trump presidency as a group of former College friends reunite at an upstate farmhouse for an evening of liberal debate. It’s a play that has polarised responses and received mixed reviews from the critics – arguably something which good political theatre ought to do. In a 45-minute event before the evening show, Washburn was joined onstage by fellow writer James Graham, whose play Ink about the earlier years of The Sun under Rupert Murdoch and Larry Lamb opened to much acclaim in 2017 before earning a West End transfer and will shortly open on Broadway.

Chaired by Stephanie Bain, the Almeida’s Literary Manager, the discussion opened with the different approaches each writer takes to choosing and then researching their subject matter. Washburn admitted that Shipwreck was not a conscious attempt to write a Trump play but the outcome of a period of retreat from the news, evolving from various political debates and ideas about language that had dominated her thoughts for some time. Graham drew out the contrast between the fixed American constitution and the UK governmental structure full of precedents and tradition which, for a British playwright interested in the rituals and processes of societal institutions, naturally assumes a metaphorical significance when these institutions are put under pressure.

Washburn argued that actively setting a play in the past means a dramatist wants to use their imagination to fill-in the aspects missing from the sources, whereas much of the content of Shipwreck is constructed from and inspired by Trump’s own words and articles on far-right websites that formed part of her research. As the conversation turned to writing potentially contentious subject matter, Graham, in reference to his recent TV drama Brexit: The Uncivil War, which provoked unexpected controversy, spoke about the need to create boundaries around the work to combat personal bias and to search for universality that will make plays last beyond the immediate moment.

Warming to his theme, Graham further explained that looking for empathy and purpose in the behaviour of “bad” people is important in combating the tribalism of current society as well as being the responsibility of political playwrights to explore opposing viewpoints. Washburn agreed, adding that the volume of information available to us now is both unprecedented and overloading, and, as both discussants referenced Arthur Miller’s use of allegory in a time of significant censorship, Washburn insisted that modern playwrights’ relative freedom comes with a recognition of our delicate, challenging times and the need to all “be better arguers”.

Some well-considered audience questions rounded off the event with one attendee asking what the writers want the audience to take from their work. Washburn explained that diverging responses to her work that leave questions in the viewer’s mind was the key purpose for her, and this creation of curiosity was something Graham agreed with, while wanting to tell an entertaining story that gives people “access to worlds that may have been previously blocked.” This led neatly into a discussion about regional theatre and greater accessibility which, as a communal experience, both writers insist remains a vital part of our cultural life, and something which Washburn feels will look very different in the next 5-10 years.

Political theatre, Graham concluded, is not just political because of its subject matter but the various debates about who sees it and when, how long it’s on for and pricing, which are all political decisions in a way. And, taking the event back to Shipwreck, Washburn reinforced that idea by explaining how her very American play was completed too late for the US season so by chance had its world premiere at the Almeida instead. The event finished just in time for the evening performance where the next audience is waiting to see The Almeida’s latest foray into political theatre.

Shipwreck runs until 30 March 2019

Maryam Philpott | Image: Contributed

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