Political theatre: verbatim theatre and Dario Fo

Verbatim theatre fills the hole left by the current inadequacy of TV documentary, perished under the tanktracks of reality TV.

David Edgar (playwright)

As a piece of political theatre The National Theatre production of The Power of Yes by David Hare is, in terms of it’s form, an example what Boal describes as bourgeois “spectacle theater”, in that it is a professional theatrical performance of a ‘closed’ text that doesn’t afford experimentation or intervention by the audience. The play explores the events of and leading up to the 2008 global financial crisis and the subtitle “a dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis” hints at the theatrical approach Hare decided to take for this subject matter.

The playtext is primarily made up of quotes taken verbatim from interviews conducted by the playwright with participants – from bankers, financial regulators, politicians, journalists, economists, academics and so on – all real people whose actual words are spoken. I think this approach is an interesting choice, by rejecting a didactic tone it bears some comparison with Brecht’s description of epic theatre – the combination of direct reportage by participants with the only non-participant character, that of the researcher who is conducting the interviews who performs a similar function to Brecht’s example of the street demonstrator in that she helps to produce the alienation effect, prompts the audience to critically reflect on their statements instead of becoming embroiled in the theatrical illusion. Boal’s critique would describe this kind of political theatre as “that of the enlightened vanguard … the experience is revealing on the level of consciousness, but not globally on the level of action.”

The aim is clarity. I want a non-professional audience to understand an incredibly complicated subject, and no longer to feel excluded when it’s reported on television.

The Power of Yes is an experiment with the form of verbatim. I wanted to find new ways of using real dialogue – rather like Glenn Gould’s radio programmes where he took voices and turned them into music. I see the verbatim form as essentially musical.

(taken from interview with David Hare)
Here’s a link to a pack that includes interviews plus some useful exercises for creating verbatim theatre.

Interview with the director (of Australian production):

In contrast to Hare’s form of political theatre which is dealing with critical themes but within the context of an essentially conventional theatrical experience, the work of Dario Fo and Franca Rame in Italy from the late 1960s onwards is an example of progressive theatre that is situated within and as an active participant in the working-class movement. Fo and Rame formed the New Scene collective and their performances moved out of the professional theatre into local worker’s centres and often in sites of struggle, such as factories where strikes or occupations were taking place. Aside from the revolutionary content of the plays – such as Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay? & Mistiero Buffo – which dramatised real experiences of class conflict and struggle, their innovations in form include frequent breaking off the ‘fourth wall’ to address the audience directly and the introduction a ‘third act’ in which performers and audience debated the issues, often leading to performance of an alternative ending.

If you’re interested I’ve added an article in Zotero that analyzes Fo’s theatrical practice & politics of the period of the later 60s & 70s.

Categories: Reflective Posts


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