Dr Ellen Redling is a lecturer in English literature and culture at Ruprecht-Karls-University Heidelberg in Germany. Among her main research interests are contemporary British drama, Victorian literature, and English and American Gothic literature. She has published numerous articles as well as a co-edited volume on contemporary drama, which is entitled Non–standard Forms of Contemporary Drama and Theatre (Trier: WVT, 2008). Her dissertation monograph Allegorical Thackeray: Secularised Allegory in Thackeray’s Major Novels and a co-edited volume on Gothic Transgressions: Extension and Commercialization of a Cultural Mode were published in 2015 (Zurich: LIT). She is currently working on a post-doctoral project titled Politics, Ethics and Aesthetics in British Big Issue Plays after 2000.
Taking a Stand:Calls for Radical Social and Political Change in Contemporary Drama in British Mainstream Theatre Houses
It may often seem that twenty-first-century drama in British mainstream theatre houses is marked by a type of paralysis when it comes to actually dealing with current social and political problems outside of the theatres. While numerous contemporary plays indeed show a detrimental situation in which people are oppressed or deprived of their rights, they leave out calls for radical change or lack suggestions as to how this situation could be improved. ‘Real’ provocations may appear to only reach London from communities that lie outside of the metropolis. An example of such a community-based theatre project is Stand (2014), which was created by Chris Goode and his theatre company. It is a verbatim piece that foregrounds ‘ordinary’ individuals who take a stand in their Oxford community and protest, for example, against vivisection and fracking.
While Stand can be regarded as being exemplary of ‘Theatre for Social Change’, I would like to demonstrate that drama in British mainstream theatre houses can also encourage the audience to take a stand. Recent plays such as Caryl Churchill’s Here We Go (2015) and Alexander Zeldin’s Beyond Caring (2015), which were first produced at the National Theatre in London, arguably search for new ways of engaging and provoking the viewer. While no longer relying on 1990s shock tactics, the new dramas find their own methods of grabbing and shaking the audience out of their potential complacency. The plays can have a visceral impact on the spectators by making them experience the frailty of old age and feel the soul-numbing drudgery of time-consuming and precarious jobs. The provocative slowness of the plays can work against hubristic conceptions of fast-paced progress. Such an experiential theatre can be so powerful that people in the audience feel they have to walk out, as was the case with Churchill’s play. And it can also have an impact on the spectators’ lives by resulting, for instance, in reconsiderations of how neoliberalism has harmfully shaped most work environments and our personal lives.