Free drama of popular protest rocks London stage

Reuters News
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Posted: Aug 31, 2011 8:44 AM

(This story contains graphic language)

By Barbara Lewis

LONDON (Reuters) - The spirit of the Arab Spring has found theatrical expression, with the help of one of Britain's celebrated iconoclasts, at a venue next door to the capital's mayor.

Mark Ravenhill, made famous by his 1990s debut play "Shopping and Fucking," has written a modernized version of German playwright Bertolt Brecht's "The Mother," which examines an early 20th-century protest that has taken on contemporary force.

In keeping with Brecht's popularism, there is no entry charge and by the end of the season on September 4, this fable of uprising against oppressive authority will have been performed to more than a quarter of a million people for free.

"There is renewed interest in what happens when people protest and demonstrate," Ravenhill told Reuters of his decision to revive the play.

Ravenhill's first play Shopping and Fucking stirred controversy because of its sexually violent content, but was hailed for its expose of rampant consumerism and as a prime example of the British "in-yer-face-theater" of the 1990s.

Since then, he has worked on a range of projects, including sell-out performances at this summer's Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland, and he is writing a libretto for an opera to be staged in Oslo.

For Ravenhill, Brecht has particularly wide resonance and could speak to the Middle Eastern and North African countries that have protested against their governments, beginning with uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt at the start of this year.

"Brecht's plays really travel. They have a fable-like quality," said Ravenhill. "You can really imagine an Arab audience understanding The Mother."

In addition to providing the text, Ravenhill will act one of the play's characters for the final performances of the season.

UNCONVENTIONAL CONTEXT

For him, The Scoop open-air theater next to London Mayor Boris Johnson's City Hall headquarters on the south bank of the River Thames was a particularly appropriate venue.

"It was written to be taken outside the conventional context," said Ravenhill of The Mother, in which a mother, initially politically neutral, becomes a forthright champion of the socialist cause.

"The idea it is totally free creates a really special atmosphere. You get a different audience and you get a different attitude."

The London-based Steam Industry Free Theater Limited, producer of the performances, said the audience has included many who have never before been to the theater, which can be a middle-class bastion.

Provided it can continue to drum up funding in a climate of deep cuts, especially to the arts, the Steam Industry will next year celebrate its 10th season of delivering critically acclaimed free theater at The Scoop.

"There's not a penny available yet there's the expectation we will pull something impressive out of the bag," said Phil Willmott, artistic director of the project.

So far, he said pockets of sponsorship and public donations had been enough for the free theater to keep going "by the skin of its teeth."

Next August's plan to stage the "Oresteia" trilogy, written by Aeschylus, to a non-paying audience many of whom will probably know little about classical Greek drama, could be the most ambitious project yet.

It will again be highly topical as it will coincide with London's 2012 hosting of the Olympic Games, another pillar of classical Greek culture.

The trilogy celebrates "the ethos from which the games were born with the epic Greek drama cycle of the people," said Willmott.

(Editing by Paul Casciato)