Creative Commons/Jess Taylor

What is the connection between mediocre theatre and Westminster politics? Most people aren’t paying attention. When the acting’s subpar and the script not up to much, eyes begin to wander, and the fidgeting begins; normally though nobody bothers leaving. Likewise, this government lurches from crisis to crisis – most recently over Owen Patterson’s lobbying – and continue to retain a popular edge over the opposition: either the general public don’t care or more likely, they don’t really know about it. This isn’t an issue for the government, but it is one for the opposition. They’re relying on the day-to-day flaws of the cast – forgetting lines, bad chemistry – to turn off the audience rather than offering a compelling alternative that’s going to make people leave their seats.

Great theatre can teach the opposition about good politics. Striking drama tends to have these principles: an engaging narrative and airtight collaboration. Theatre is about storytelling and great theatre takes the audience beyond the actors on stage – though they’re important – and into an evocative world. Politics needs to have such a narrative, with an overarching plot and theme for an audience to understand. The case needs to be made that this isn’t just about a fantastic cast, or even that they’re an alternative - this is theatre you have to see. Elections like 1979, 1997 and 2019 demonstrate the importance of such a plot, bringing together a sense of what the issues are and how they can only be solved by the opposition. The success of most Shakespeare plays is that they can be put on by anyone, so general a template do they provide. What makes them soar is the direction – a vision of how thematically the play fits together. The same is true for opposition politics.

“Yet the political age we live in now is one of unavoidable theatre”

It is often thought that what Shakespeare teaches us about politics is the personal. Boris Johnson has almost ubiquitously been compared to Falstaff – his Dionysian character, Macbeth – the monstrous ambition and Hamlet, the compulsive laziness. What the late Shakespeare plays say about character is that these inherent character traits directly have tragic consequences. Political commentators like Steve Richards and David Runciman see the aforementioned qualities of Johnson’s character as the thread which will lead to his eventual downfall. This framing has been used to characterise his predecessors – Cameron’s resignation based on his latent arrogance, May’s on her stubbornness.

This focus on Shakespeare’s late tragedies comes at the expense of the more relevant early plays like ‘A Comedy of Errors’. In this 1594 play, events beyond the characters control drive the plot. They are often confused and reactive, trying and failing to grasp what is going on. It is this that has defined this government’s course, Johnson’s premiership has been defined more than any of his predecessors by forces beyond his control. That is not to exculpate him of responsibility – like the cast of ‘A Comedy of Errors’ it is how he acts to these forces which decides his fate. Many of his predecessors have resigned due to such tempestuous forces – Callaghan, Major, Brown. Character doesn’t always define fate – it is up to the opposition party to explain what these forces are and why this government cannot deal with them.


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There is a danger in devaluing politics by comparing it to theatre. The transfer and negotiation of power has enormous consequences for the United Kingdom – poverty, racism, poor infrastructure and climate change are all allowed to fester without the intervention of government. By thinking about politics as purely performance, narrative and perception it becomes an entertainment, loosened from the demands of the electorate.

Yet the political age we live in now is one of unavoidable theatre. With 24-hour news every politician is method – truly all the worlds a stage. Boris Johnson’s trajectory into Number 10 illustrates this. He has moved effortlessly between journalism, television and elected office, learning along the way about the allure of character. The leader of the opposition has entered the stage from a more private, rational sphere of law and found the audience doesn’t warm to his stickler for the rules part. While politics might have once been drama it is now comedy, and one leader is evidently better suited to the lead. A central concern then of the opposition should be widening the focus, juxtaposing the prime minister’s buffoonery against a darker, more troubled setting, the country he leads.