Walking The Tightrope

Theatre Deli, London

It’s not just the awful events of Paris and Charlie Hebdo that have brought art and politics into public consciousness. Last year we had the Tricycle Theatre accused of anti-semitism for requesting withdrawal of Israeli government funding from the theatre’s annual Jewish Festival; we had a hip-hop musical closed at the Edinburgh Fringe for similar connections with the Israeli government (all in the wake of Israel’s actions in Gaza); and around the same time, violent protests erupted over Exhibit B, the installation-exhibition staged by South African Brett Bailey using black performers as human exhibits to highlight slavery and racism.

You could add to that a string of other smaller protests over the years against artistic works, some of which caused closure or cessation of performances. It’s been going on a long time.

What is new, as an audience member perceptively pointed out at Walking the Tightrope, is the extreme to which protestors now go to force home their point. In the end, the boycott leading to closure can amount to censorship. Who is winning? The artist who dares to speak out, cross boundaries, break taboos? Or the righteous protestor trying to be `politically effective’ and in their eyes, right a grievous wrong?

Such were some of the challenging issues thrown up in the fascinating after-show debate that accompanied Thursday’s (and every) performance this week of Cressida Brown’s timely and brave Walking the Tightrope, twelve five-minute plays that in the wake of the Tricycle Brown commissioned in an attempt as much to explore her own feelings about the controversy that divided the Jewish community, as to instigate a free-flowing, and safe dialogue.

Inevitably, the insoluble nature of the Israel and Palestine conflict dominated the plays that included contributions from playwrights Mark Ravenhill, April de Angelis, Tim Fountain, Neil LaBute and Caryl Churchill but by no means excluded other areas such as racism, democracy and supping with the devil in the form of sponsorship.

Indeed Ravenhill’s Running Order brilliantly encapsulated this even if it too walked a fine line by concentrating its fire on a wealthy Jewish mother trying to bribe inclusion of her dyslexic son in a theatre production.

But then several of the plays, `walked the tightrope’ of good taste, none more so than LaBute with his Exhibit A, a deeply provocative `satire’ on the Brett Bailey furore. Taking a self-proclaimed black `artist’ and involving a simulated anal rape on a young, white, gagged female victim, the artist proclaims the `beauty’ of the artistic act even as he is challenging us to speak out against it if we disagree.

Needless to say, no one spoke up. In the debate afterwards, several women wondered aloud why and how we had been so reduced to silence despite evident  discomfort. Some argued it was because of the satirical nature of the piece. It wasn’t `real’ therefore it could distanced. For this viewer, however, at a stroke LaBute had isolated uncompromisingly audience complicity and voyeurism and therefore our  own responsibility in the act – an ethical area people seldom like to raise.

Other subjects included apartheid (de Angelis’s Sun City), protest as oppression (Sarah Solemani’s Acting Towards the Promotion of Peace – alarmingly close in  style to Caryl Churchill’s controversial Seven Jewish Children) whilst Julia Pascal found a quasi-music hall-Beckett form for her Old Newland with a dying Irish-Jew looking back to Jerusalem and wondering, sadly, whose land it will ever be: `our land…their land…’

Tim Fountain’s Beyond the Fringe marvellously revitalised issues of liberal pretension and gestural politics with a son outraging his Guardian reading mother by refusing to boycott the hip-hop musical and Churchill, in her inestimable way closed the programme with a delicate but highly sophisticated reprising of politics as personal and linguistic.

Like previous Theatre Uncut events, Brown’s Walking the Tightrope is clearly a labour not just of love but passion, created on a shoestring, by a stirling, hard-working and very versatile cast of seven.

Amazingly, Brown herself directed the majority of the plays supplemented by colleague Kirsty Housley. Housed in a make-shift space on a plain wooden stage, in the old Guardian building in London’s Clerkenwell/Farringdon area, the context only added to the strange frisson of an event of artistic worth and intense moral questioning.

Once again, Theatre Uncut, this time with Cressida Brown’s Offstage Theatre and Theatre Deli are proving invaluable provocateurs in the cause of democracy.

First published in Reviewsgate