Tonight, some 40,000 theatregoers will try to escape the UK general election by voting with their cheeks and parking their bottoms on the red velvet plush seats of London’s Theatreland. But Theatreland’s writers, actors and directors have a long standing fascination with their expense-dodging power hungry counterparts. Tonight, we take an irreverent look at the Politics of Theatreland – a place where neither Monarch nor Prime Minister is above derision. Famously described as “show business for ugly people”, Politics is a whole lot closer to theatre than we might like to admit, and when you look at the leaps of Eddie Izzard, Glenda Jackson and Russell Brand from the theatrical onto the political stage, you see how easily the lines can blur.
Election night broadcast live from the Donmar Warehouse
Judi Dench and Mark Gatiss tonight lead a stellar cast broadcasting live theatre to the nation’s living rooms in a unique real-time general election drama. They are joined by Timothy West, Bill Paterson and Catherine Tate, in The Vote, a collaboration between the Donmar and Channel 4. The Vote dramatises the final 90 minutes before the polls close in this year’s election and will be broadcast live on More4 from the Donmar stage at that precise time, between 8.30pm and 10pm, on 7 May.
The play is by James Graham – who wrote National Theatre hit This House – and explores the act of voting in Britain. Set in a fictional London polling station, the play also features Dench’s daughter Finty Williams and marks Dame Judi’s first time back on the Donmar stage in Covent Garden since 1977.
Under UK Broadcasting regulations, it’s forbidden to show any political propaganda whilst the polls are open, but director Josie Rourke has stressed there will be no problem as the play is not party political, instead focused on the act of voting and democracy in the 21st century. Whatever it is, you can bet it will be the best thing on TV this election night!
Many a theatre luvvie will remember with a mixture of delight and horror the 11 year reign of Margaret, Baroness Thatcher. Some loved her for dismantling the unions and enabling council house tenants to buy their homes while for others, she was the Prime Minister who brought in the Poll Tax and Section 28 and who divided communities – she famously claimed there was “no such thing as society”. Whatever her motives, achievements, successes and failures, you had to admire Thatcher’s guts and sheer bombast. She survived the Brighton Bomb and in the end, it took her own party to do what the IRA could not and bring her down. That makes her a prime candidate for theatrical immortality.
She’s also a dead cert to get you an award or two. In 2011, that was a Best Actress Oscar win for Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) but that’s nothing compared to the theatre awards in which she played a hand; Handbagged (Olivier award, Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre), The Audience (Olivier award, Best Actress for Helen Mirren -Thatcher herself was played by Haydn Gwynne)…. Even in puppet form (Billy Elliot) she has found fame with 5 Olivier Awards (including the 2013 Audience Award), 10 Tony Awards and 10 Drama Desk Awards.
Ironically, bearing in mind her attitude towards the arts and his rumoured sexuality, it was Sir Laurence Olivier who arranged for her to have lessons with the speech coach at the Royal National Theatre. That undoubtedly helped lower her pitch and develop a calm, authoritative tone – to a point where it was in fact a man, Steve Nallon, who is the best remembered voice of Thatcher. A quick visit to youtube will remind you quite what a great satirical delight it was to see Maggie out for dinner with her cabinet ministers:
What Spitting Image did with puppets, Gerald Scarfe does with a pen. He is undoubtedly the finest satirical caricaturist of our age and fortunately for us all, he is as inspired as much by the theatrical as by the political stage.
Scarfe has collaborated with Los Angeles Opera several times, including the designs for Fantastic Mr Fox, and The Magic Flute. He designed the sets and costumes for Orpheus in the Underworld, for the English National Opera at the London Coliseum, later remounted in Detroit, Houston and Los Angeles, and also designed the English National Ballet production of The Nutcracker, which was in their Christmas repertoire for 5 years.
There was, of course, a whole world of Politics both before and after Scarfe, Thatcher, Blair et al. James Graham (mentioned earlier in this post) wrote This House which was a huge hit at the National Theatre, running from 18 September to 1 December 2012 before transferring to the larger Olivier auditorium. The action revolved around the period in British parliamentary history between the 1974 general election and the 1979 vote of no confidence in James Callaghan , focusing primarily on the relationships between the two sets of whips, their backbenchers and the members of the minor parties.
Yes, Prime Minister enjoyed a highly successful transfer from the small screen to the West End stage (via Chichester) back in 2010, starring Henry Goodman and David Hague (no relation to William) and subsequent UK tour, The Duck House (Vaudeville Theatre) took a satirical, and very successful, swipe at MPs more ludicrous expense claims in 2012, and then there is the recent crop of recent musicals such as Stephen Ward and Made in Dagenham which shone spotlights on the scandal and machinations of the British Political class.
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Of course, the theatre community isn’t immune from a little political manoeuvring itself as the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts found to his cost this week.
The theatre critic, not known for pulling his punches, found himself out in the cold after publishing a withering attack on Kristin Scott Thomas’ Olivier nomination in which he wrote “Sorry Kristin, you don’t deserve a gong just for having fab cheekbones”. Well, the last laugh was definitely on Dame Kristin as Mr Letts was dumped ignominiously on the street without a ticket for press night.
Undeterred, he bought himself a seat in the gods and wrote a review anyway, praising the play and continuing his attacks on KST’s acting ability. Quite what she has done to Mr Letts is anyone’s guess. One thing’s for sure – they probably won’t be going out for dinner on election night.