This summer playwright Tim Rice’s thought-provoking staging of the Chelsea Manning saga won him the first ever James Tait Black Prize for drama, with the jury praising the show’s important subject matter and unique voice. Political theatre: it’s one of the most fertile grounds for a playwright, and yet one of the most challenging – and most susceptible to public and critical scrutiny. A topic we’ve all seen covered in the news, sometimes for weeks on end, perhaps even something that has directly affected our own lives. How to adapt a real-life drama? We take a look at five provocative plays that put the news on stage.
1. Chalk Farm
Kieran Hurley and AJ Taudevin’s Chalk Farm examined the notorious riots that devastated London in 2011 – from a single mother’s perspective. Produced by ThickSkin for a run at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, the play challenged the way parents were vilified by the press following the riots. The Guardian gave it three stars, calling it a ‘small but punchy show’.
2. Trash Cuisine
Staged at the Young Vic this summer, the daring Belarus Free Theatre’s Trash Cuisine took a dark look at the death penalty, featuring true stories from inmates, executioners, human rights lawyers and families of the executed. Banned from performing in their own country, the theatre researched this work with support from Amnesty International. But it left a bitter taste for The Financial Times, which said the BFT had ‘lost its defiant playfulness and authority’.
3. Tactical Questioning
Richard Norton-Taylor’s work tackled the controversial Baha Mousa inquiry. Staged at the Tricycle Theatre in London, the play questioned who bears moral responsibility for sanctioning torture. But The Arts Desk said that despite the Tricycle’s skill in verbatim drama, Tactical Questioning was predictable and visually limited.
4. The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs
Mike Daisey’s controversial play aimed to shed light on working conditions in Chinese Apple factories. And at first it got great press, billed by The New York Times as an ‘eye-opening exploration of the moral choices we unknowingly or unthinkingly make when we purchase nifty little gadgets’. But the playwright later came under fire when it emerged he had fabricated parts of the story for dramatic effect. Regardless of the critical reception, Daisey’s story – or at least, some version of it – has become one of the most performed works ever, after he made the entire script available online under a free license.
5. The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning
Tim Rice had originally pitched a different play to National Theatre Wales, but couldn’t get the plight of Bradley Manning (now Chelsea Manning) out of his head. He proposed the new idea, and the result was the award-wining The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning (pictured above). The work tracks the life of the young soldier, from her early years at school in Wales to the leaking of US state secrets. The Telegraph wrote that the ‘WikiLeaks whistleblower’s troubled life made for slick, compelling drama’.