*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

Paul Vallely: Theatre is not a retreat from reality

25 August 2023

Paul Vallely finds that it can delve deeper into stories than the news

Yellow Brick Productions

Two of the cast from Carte Blanche

Two of the cast from Carte Blanche

IN THE past fortnight, I have witnessed a woman cradling a bag of flour as if it were a baby. I have been moved by two First World War snipers — one English, one French — who build a tender companionship amid the trenches. I have laughed out loud at pink-haired tales of therapy and watched black South Africans “white-up” to tell a topsy-turvy story of the taming of the American West. And I have seen a dance troupe jerk out the agony of 29 people who have taken their own lives in HM Prison Woodhill since 2011.

I have been, you may have guessed, to the Edinburgh Fringe. Someone like me, who spends a deal of time immersed in news and politics, might imagine that they could retreat into the entertaining haven of the theatre for respite. Entertainment? Certainly, that’s there in plenty. But the theatre is no retreat from the reality of the world. Quite the opposite.

The bags of flour were a metaphor deployed by Jenny Sealey, who, after a lifetime of championing stories by deaf and disabled artists, this year decided to tell her own. Yet, while vividly recounting the tale of a life of deafness since a playground fall at school, in Self-Raising, she unfolded with humour a life of family secrets rooted in an emotional rather than a physical disability. It brought a tear to the eye.

In contrast, in Self-Helpless, the comedian Christopher Hall, who insisted that he dyed his hair pink before going to see the film Barbie, brought tears of laughter with confessional tales of childhood, adolescent anxiety, adult procrastination, and being sacked by his therapist for irreverence.

Carte Blanche, a new play by a promising student writer, Maria Sigrid Remme, offered a different view of the First World War. It is often said that war is months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. But part of war’s absurdity is that, besides tearing people apart, it brings them together — something that she skilfully invokes through the allusive and elliptical dialogue of the two snipers. Theatre can delve deeper than the news.

It can also turn the news upside-down. Dark Noon is history told by the vanquished. Seven South African actors portray the brutal interactions between white settlers, indigenous people, Chinese immigrants, and African slaves, in the creation of the American Dream — which concludes, with thought-provoking irony, with the line: “If you want to kill an African story, tell it in English.”

But perhaps the most provocative piece for this newsman-at-rest was Woodhill, which set out the stories of just three of the men who are reported to have taken their own lives in this Milton Keynes prison. Against the background of a devastating poetic documentary soundtrack by Matt Woodhead, a company called LUNG performed a powerful piece of dance — an anguished physical correlative to the disturbing voiceover.

Woven in with the men’s desperate stories was the campaigning of their bereaved families, and a stream of clips from Prison Inspectorate reports and inquest findings — all of which have brought little change. A year ago, I was a member of one such independent commission, which criticised the constant inflation in the length of prison sentences (Comment, 30 September 2022). Perhaps the visceral impact of theatre will have greater success in bringing about change.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear below your letter unless requested otherwise.

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards

 

Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available

 

Inspiration: The Influences That Have Shaped My Life

September - November 2024

St Martin in the Fields Autumn Lecture Series 2024

tickets available

 

SAVE THE DATE

Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website

 

Visit our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

 

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)