The Power and the Fury

No more media softballing: London stages offer sharp rebukes to Blair and Bush

But perhaps London audiences are flocking to these stories because—with the exception of Guantánamo—they are made up. Unlike tales of WMDs or direct links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein or carefully controlled embedded journalists, these plays present themselves explicitly as fiction—yet ring true. For one, their narratives are more nuanced, and there-fore more credible, than the melodrama proffered by TV news and tabloid papers, featuring a cast of suffering heroes, rescued heroines, and mustachioed (well, bearded) villains. Theater, by virtue of its liveness, its conflict, its dialogue, can offer audiences multiple perspectives on issues. Lan says, "What the theater does is to show complications, contradictions. Take Hercules in Cruel and Tender. You admire his strength and you're extremely critical of the way that strength can be used."

Most of these plays are not illusionistic—actors change the scene, carry props on and off, play multiple parts with little change of costume. These dramas remind the audience of their artifice and typically avoid making simplistic distinctions between saviors and scoundrels. Unusually in an age of soundbites and spin, spectators are forced to think for themselves. Also, theater brings actors and audience together in the same space, allowing them to participate in the process. A public that feels increasingly alienated from its leaders' decision making must welcome this. As Slovo says, "It's about having the audience experience something together, and that itself can be transformative. Watching them walk out, you can see that something's happened to them."

With rising distrust of the mass media and disillusionment with participatory government, this surge of political theater is unlikely to abate. In addition to Guantánamo, Cruel and Tender may soon transfer to New York. Meanwhile, the fall season in London will offer David Hare's Stuff Happens—which takes its title from Rumsfeld's infamous comment on the looting of Baghdad, "Stuff happens . . . and it's untidy, and freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things." The schedule also includes at least two productions of Euripides' Hecuba, a wrenching illustration of a conquered queen and nation.

Civil liberties held captive: New York-bound  Guantánamo
photo: Tricycle Theatre
Civil liberties held captive: New York-bound Guantánamo

Though Billington warns "directors may be striving a bit too hard to achieve topical resonance," an awesome number of plays—ancient, early modern, contemporary—explicitly discuss the corruption of power or the suspension of civil liberties. They speak, eloquently and forebodingly, to the current conflict and its costs. At the National, for example, a shiver ran through the audience when, in the midst of Measure for Measure, Duke Vincentio observed, "There is scarce truth enough alive to make societies secure; but security enough to make fellowships accurst. . . . This news is old enough, yet it is every day's news."

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