Sunday, 3 April 2011

Snipping Away at the Arts: Theatre Uncut

In the current 'cuts climate' it's easy for people to shun the Arts in favour of protesting about cuts to the NHS.   In fact until recently, it seemed even the Arts were shunning themselves. The 'I Value the Arts' Campaign seemed to be the only group around to have a popular (and by popular I mean social media related) presence...

But of course, it's in keeping with the nature of the beast to build up suspense. And boy was it worth it. 

Ever since George Osborne made that lengthy speech on a hazy autumn day, a narrative of blame, anger and Clegg hating has shaped almost every news bulletin and report. (One might almost think thank goodness for Libya. At least it gives us a bit of a break.) But, one sector that has remained pretty quiet is the Arts. Despite seeing a significant blow to their one of their only champions- Arts Council England-any anger has been overridden by the charging students and workers. 

To put you in the picture, The Arts Council has to make a 30% cut to its spending by 2015. Last week, this figure was translated into real terms as 600 organisations were refused funding and many more saw their budgets slashed dramatically. Museums Sheffield was one of the victims, losing all its ACE support as did several other Yorkshire based arts groups. 

Enter stage left:  Theatre Uncut. 

This nationwide protest, culminated in a day of ferocious performances across the UK and certainly packed a punch. It began, as all the best plans do, as a discussion in a humble kitchen, between friends Hannah Price, Libby Brodie and Mark Ravenhill. They decided that the 'political voice of theatre' should be utilised in some way against the cuts made in the Government Spending Review.

Soon after the kitchen conversation, they secured the performance rights of eight plays, by some of the UK's leading playwrights, about various types of public sector cuts. Lucy Kirkwood, Dennis Kelly, David
Greig, Laura Lomas, Anders Lustgarten, Mark Ravenhill, Jack Thorne and Clara Brennan all produced original short plays for the cause. The performances began up to a week before, but ended on the 19th March with hundreds of people performing them across the country. 

The plays, some monologues, the rest with up to three actors encompassed a wide range of issues...disability allowance, mental health funding, drug rehabilitation and bankers bonuses...but all had one thing in common, the reminder that the cuts to our public sectors run deeper than any of us can begin to imagine. 

The most moving of the eight were the two monologues, Fragile by David Greig and Hi Vis by Clara Brennan (both directed by Sean Linnen in Sheffield's take on Theatre Uncut). I wasn't the only one left in tears by the mother figure in Brennan's play, who explained how her disabled daughter was missing the vital support she had once received. She explains how as parents they care for their daughter themselves, covered in blood and shit, she is hauled from bed to bath. No quality of life, and even less now the public sector cuts take their toll on Council services. 

Then came 'Jack' the once drug-addled youth who depends on the support he receives from 'Caroline' and the others 'down the centre'. We're all guilty of thinking these kind of  people don't matter...but Greig makes us see that if the precious few who do care are no longer there, then there really is no hope at all. Jack may be riddled with paranoia and anxiety, but he's smart. Really smart. And quickly works out that 'freelance' means 'redundancy'...from the sounds made by the audience it seems this turn of phrase is all too familiar. 

But What makes Fragile really clever is that 'because of austerity measures' the audience play the part of the carer, Caroline. As a result her words are formal, mechanical and unfeeling...a tone not far removed from that of the MP's we hear on the news. 

Most startling is how current the plays are. There are references to Mohamed Bouazizi and Tunisia and the student protests. And, as the characters of Jack Thornes play Whiff Whaff ask the ultimate hypothetical question 'What would David do?' the audience shifted uncomfortably in their seats. 

Libby Brodie, one of those behind Theatre Uncut, told me that they were conscious not to make it 'about theatre, by theatre people' and that it isn't 'just theatre for theatres sake', and I promise you it isn't. Strangely,  not one of the plays is about the cuts to the arts, but I soon realised that they don't have to be. The very method of performance and the poignant conveyance of passion, despair and disappointment with our current Government is enough to convince anybody that the Arts need to be protected. If only to make more stands like this. 

Keep an eye out for my interview with Libby Brodie which I'll be posting in the next couple of days. 




Theatre Uncut was performed at The Crucible in Sheffield on 19th March.
Directors: Daniel Evans, Jonathan Humphreys and Sean Linnen

http://www.theatreuncut.co.uk/

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