Paul Mason, author and Newsnight economics editor, is wearing a Big Lebowski T-shirt and wellies and the Literature Tent is packed. Totally rammed. Tonight, the headline act is not Elbow, it’s left-leaning economics. Mason is here to tell us Why it’s Kicking off Everywhere. He begins by telling us how pleased he is that we have turned up to talk about a book that the ‘literary elite’ say is “rubbish.” He goes on to explain that while many of the issues at the heart of the Arab Spring are very old, these themes are also overlaid with something that is very new.
While he laughs at the idea that the recent revolutions have been much aided by SMS messaging and Facebook, he feels that the replacement of committees by networked communities has had an enormous effect. People don’t have to subscribe to a party or a lifestyle now to get involved in political action. By allowing such movements to be non-hierarchical and horizontal, technological developments can attract and connect far more diverse groups of people. Today, people are suspicious of power and authority in all its guises: they are not prepared to wait for someone to lead them.
He speaks of a generation that is angry. They want change but history has taught them the high cost of revolutionary ideology. They are a generation that grew up with the promise of choice, who to waited in line to be asked “Skinny or full fat?” when ordering their latte, not to be told they are ten minutes late and money will now be deducted from their benefits. He speaks about his recent visit to Greece, to the Syriza head quarters. Here again the old and new merge in strange ways: they may be the future of the revolution, but they still have a paper filing system. This is a far left party, very nearly in power in a Western democracy, but it is not happening because the majority of people are suddenly hungry for socialism. It is happening because they are simply so sick of everything else.
There is a question from the crowd: “Marx said revolution will happen in England and I believe that. He said socialism will come when there is no other alternative. But is now the right time or do we wait for a total crash before we have the revolution?” This is said very matter of factly and the rest of the audience takes it calmly. Mason too is practical. “The banking system has exploded as much as it can for now. People are caught between reform and revolution; they don’t like the establishment, but fear crazy people will get into power if there is a real revolution. People are simply thinking ‘I need to carve out a space in which I can survive this.’ The grand ideology has been abandoned. People want alternative spaces rather than system change, but this pisses the anti-capitalists off.”
Next up there is a question about the NHS: why aren’t we fighting harder to save it and the welfare state? Why are we letting this happen? The audience members concludes his question with a comment that “the BBC role in covering the NHS was despicable.” Side-stepping the dig, Mason tells her “People don’t protest about big ideas or big movements any more. Issues needs to be personal. People want an ‘increased individual footprint’”
This is a strangely gentle discussion about very radical ideas. Mason is far more moderate and measured in person than in his book. The BBC comment reminds us that he is very much part of the establishment. He is not only preaching to the converted- but also to people like himself, people with a big stake in the status quo, whose lives will not be improved by an all out revolution; they have too much to loose. If what will kill the present system is its own excess, Mason, with his clear, calm analysis is far more capital’s doctor than its assassin; if his desire for a more moderate, ethical capitalism is successful, the hope for real systemic change will be lost.
Similar themes are broached by Giles Fraser and Mark Ravenhill in a debate entitled Theatre: a place for protest? Fraser, the ex-canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, and Ravenhill take a look at the effects of corporate funding in both the church and the theatre and ask whether it prevents either from taking a truly radical or anti-establishment stance. Fraser speaks about the cathedral’s relationship with the City of London, about how a recent cleaning cost four million pounds and how that that money has to come from somewhere. Ravenhill talks about the conditions involved in obtaining public funding in the arts, how it is often only matched by what the theatre can raise in the corporate sector. “Theatres,” he says, “have to learn to speak the language of corporate sponsorship. This changes the choices they make, the way they treat their staff and the way they structure their organisations.” They begin, he believes, to make plays about politics in a softer way: “It’s about individuals and personal ethics, being better, nicer people, not challenging bigger structures.”
Fraser asks Ravenhill a particularly nicely-put question: “Do you feel like the launderer of public opinion for big business?” and Ravenhill nods. Educational and outreach programmes that began in the 60s and 70s as political and social initiatives have been co-opted as ways to secure funding. “Pictures of ‘multicultural smiling kids’ are attractive to sponsors.” The programmes become “half baked,” lip service instead of active community participation. On a question regarding his position as ‘House Radical’ he explains that you have to be able to play the system “There are certain things you can only do in big institutions: there are people, resources that can be really useful. At other times I work on different projects, with no money, in different venues. I shift between the two; I step outside the system, then step back into it.”
Later, theatre as a place for protest gets a chance to speak for itself at a preview of Theatre Uncut 2012. Following on from the success of last year’s project, for 2012 the company are bringing together international playwrights to produce work both about the cuts and about the broader global political situation. For one week in the autumn, the new plays will be available, rights free, for everyone and anyone to perform anywhere. Many are currently still works in progress and like last year, the actors have only had a few days to rehearse. Today there are five plays on show, but with work from writers in Syria, Egypt and Iceland on the way this number is likely to increase. There will also be rapid response pieces written for the Edinburgh Fringe run at the Traverse, with Stef Smith (Road Kill) and Keiren Hurley (Beats) are already lined up.
We have queued and the theatre tent is full. First up is Neil La Bute’s In the Beginning. A father reads the paper while his son tries to convince him that his involvement with the new activist movement is worthwhile. The comedy grows as it becomes obvious that the son is asking his Dad for money to fund his trip to New York to join the Occupy movement. “You want me fund you to go and scold workers like me who are paying for you to scold us?” The history of the American civil rights movement hangs in the air and lines like “this is just about how mommy and daddy didn’t hold me enough when I was little” provide an interesting angle on protest. The ending, where the Dad lends his son the Mercedes, gives him a wad of cash and tells him to be back by the weekend, is poignant and well-timed.
Blondie by the 22 year old Haley Squires, whose play Vera,Vera, Vera recently debuted at the Royal Court, is next up. Set in a not so distant future, it takes on the the sexualised tabloid nature of politics and our inability to take responsibility for our choices. It is over-long but the final speech, by a blonde female political leader is fantastic: spinning the piece on its head and offering a powerful new perspective. The third play is Ayer, by the Spanish playwright Helena Torrino. Originally written in both Castilian and Catalan it is translated here by Rob Cavasos. It looks at undercover police work in Spain, turning peaceful protests into something more violent. Written over the last two weeks, it is very much a work in progress. While overly repetitive at present, its sharpness is promising.
The fourth play is from Greece and is, my opinion, the best. Lena Kitsopoulou’s The Price is clever, confident and strange. It uses surreal and twisted comedy to skewer some of the contradictions at the heart of the Greek crisis; set in a supermarket, a couple want a certain lifestyle but will not pay for it, and a corrupt pricing system prioritizes all the wrong things. The play avoids preaching ranting, instead it slowly builds on the witty scenario until it has the power to illustrate the point with precision. I immediately want to watch the piece again.
In the final piece of the five, Anders LustGarten’s The Breakout, two women are offered freedom but are afraid to leave their prison. Despite the familiar concept, it is psychologically astute and has a polish and rhythm which some of the others lacked. The finale is uplifting and powerful; if the rest of the Theatre Uncut’s plays are this thoughtful and brave, then theatre-as-protest in the UK remains alive and well.
Back at the Literature Arena, John McCarthy is reading from his new book, You Can’t Hide the Sun: a journey through Palestine and Israel. The tent, once again, is full, so I spread my raincoat on the grass outside and lie down to listen. He talks eloquently about the “bubbles” that exist in the city of Haifa, creating “thin veneer of coexistence” that allows Arabs and Israelis live together, despite the conflict. With only the sound of his voice, it is like listening to Radio 4. This seems apt, in very many ways. Inside the bubble that is Latitude, I watch as a little girl in a designer outfit use a machine to make bubbles of her own; as McCarthy’s testimonies of fleeing families losing their homes float out over the organic burger vans, she traps her oily rainbows and watches them drift away. I am left with an unsettled feeling, not unlike the queasy, uneasy sensation when the news headlines are followed by the cheery theme tune of The Archers.