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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.

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