Anders Lustgarten hasn’t abandoned the barricades for the pen and he still looks and feels like an activist when he walks into Soho Theatre. Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, the playwright is a bear of a man and exudes the air of an athlete: he was a professional sportsman before academia, activism and teaching in US prisons took his life over. It’s a strange but exhilarating combo for a playwright who, by his own admission, writes about things that are important, yet little understood. I’ve always thought of him as the theatre’s answer to Laurie Penny and he does not disappoint: provocative, intense and refreshingly unafraid to be outspoken, he is as frank, to the point and emotional as some of his plays.
And for someone who has only been writing since 2007, his CV is impressive. He won the Harold Pinter Playwriting Award in 2011 and seems to cause contrary emotions in critics, who regard him as provocateur on the one hand, and shouty activist on the other. But sticking his head above the parapet is what Lustgarten seems to do best, and when I ask him why he thinks that British theatre still seems a little afraid to say things that are against the ruling elite, his answer is almost like a verbal shrug of the shoulders. He doesn’t know: “The far left think I am a bit crude or rudimentary or don’t play the game right,” he says in relation to his own work, in particular, his most recent play, Lampedusa, which is making a four-week revival at Soho Theatre and Hightide Festival, before going on a tour with Red Ladder Theatre. “Some people are scared,” he continued. “People write to me all the time and say it’s great you are doing this stuff, we didn’t know you could.” He thinks playwrights don’t want to write powerful plays about real people because they are afraid of the critical response. You can feel his frustration, which sometimes reaches boiling point in this little room we are in: if it is so simple to do, to write such plays, why isn’t everyone? “There’s a sense that theatrical leaders are driven by market forces,” he says, “which comes to us from Thatcher. And critics have their own agendas, an ideology they too want to impose on the public and get them to see certain plays, and that doesn’t help.”
It’s the principles of the financialization of human behaviour that he is interested in the most: he has worked with Development Banks and Agencies for more than 15 years, and it’s this institutional cruelty which raises its head in his work again and again. Although Lampedusa, an account of a fisherman who ends up pulling dead migrants out of the sea in the Mediterranean, and indigenous mixed race British East Asian Denise, who earns a living by chasing after the poor for a debt company in England, is by his own account his most emotional work yet, its background is heavily researched but not prevalent in the play. “The West is just bombing poor countries and then leaving them to the likes of ISIS,” he says, disgusted. “And the EU is just prepared to let migrants die: no one even wants to talk about their recent declaration that they are going to carry out military strikes on smugglers’ boats, even though they recognise that migrants might be on them.”
I ask him about this: why, when the EU is playing such a terrible role in this ongoing murderous tragedy, he chooses to focus on two voices in the play, rather than giving us multiple viewpoints as he did with Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre, recently seen at the Arcola. “Two things happened when I was thinking about writing Lampedusa,” he says. “First the huge drowning in the Med in 2013 and which is the focus of this work and Grounded, a monologue about a US female Drone Pilot. And I thought, “OK, you can do a monologue like this. Also, I wanted to understand how I could get across the grand sweep of the Med on a small budget. The monologue gave me the answer.”
“But,” he says, warming up to his theme to which we return to time and time again, “I am interested in looking at the enforcers of such regimes. This is what I mean by institutional cruelty: the people who make the rules aren’t the enforcers. If they had the balls to get AK-16s and go out and shoot immigrants themselves, then at least I might have more respect. But instead they leave it to the likes of Stefano and Denise and this is what both Stefano and Denise do in the play: clean up the shit.” But when I ask him about one critic who said he felt he was being heckled and that this suggests that there is a lack of a right-wing perspective in his work, he laughs loud enough to make the building shake. “Both Denise and Stefano are right-wing,” he says. He doesn’t see it as heckling. “I purposefully write about characters I don’t agree with, I don’t even agree with the relationships they make or their responses to what happens to them, but that’s not the point: the point is to show how people can be enlarged by opening up and allowing people in rather than closing down and shutting them out” which for Lustgarten seems to be the spiritual endgame of global capitalism. “It’s one thing to do victims, where you might be a bit limited in your moral scope or you can only show them as people transcending their situations, what I wanted to do here was to look at the people who have to clean up after and so are not best enamoured by the migrants or the poor people on Denise’s estate.” But is there a parallel between Denise and Stefano’s stories and Modibo, a migrant who makes it to Lampedusa? “I wanted to show the parallel between what is happening to Modibo and on Denise’s estates, that it is exactly the same. Denise brings over a lot of what Stefano is doing in Lampedusa. It is happening in our country, that people have very few options except to move.”