Features Published 2 January 2015

How Can We Be Better?

Ella Greenhill on the relationship between the personal and the political and her play Made in Britain, which opens next week at the Old Red Lion.
Ella Greenhill

This play began life as an idea, an animated discussion in a pub. I wanted to explore the idea of protest. Trying to decide whether the youth of today are apathetic or disillusioned is probably a futile task, yet there exists a modern malaise which particularly affects young people in regard to their interaction with, and view of, mainstream politics.

Made in Britain is a political play only in as much that the characters want to change things and politics is a vehicle for social change. The characters within the play would disagree with this viewpoint and are looking for ways outside the norm (sometimes extreme) to get their voices heard and to express their views.

In researching this play I stumbled across this quote by Charles Bukowski: “We are all told that we can be big-ass winners, no one tells us about the gutters or the suicides.” Perhaps this is the crux of the play, possibly truer now than when Bukowski wrote it. The characters within the play have been sold certain expectations of society and when they realise that not everyone gets to be a ‘big-ass winner’ they demand to know what is left for them.

I believe plays exist to ask questions. I instinctively feel that a play that tells you what to think will fail. I am a playwright. I am not an economist, a political analyst or a politician. But I am a human and I occasionally ask myself, as we all do, could things be better, could we be better? A play which asks that question, even if it disavows politics completely, is a political play. One of the characters, Danny is, in many respects, this question. He’s angry, disillusioned and wants to be heard. How do the leaders of the main political parties represent him?

The play is very loosely based on personal experience. I grew up as a mixed race child in a single parent home in Radford, one of the most deprived areas of Nottingham. This is not a badge of honour but a recounting of circumstance. I believe that all human experience is equally valid, nothing bores me more than inverted snobbery and I firmly believe that the life experiences of an old Etonian are as valid as my own. However, there is one crucial area of our national life in which this is patently untrue and this is the Houses of Parliament. Nineteen of our Prime Ministers have been educated at Eton and come 2100 I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to what party, race, or gender, our Prime Minster might be but I would bet my life that they will not be from Radford. Young people may be disillusioned with politics for a variety of factors, one of the simpler ones among these may be that they find it boring. What must theatre do to reconnect young audiences with politics (or more simply, what must theatre do to connect with young audiences)? The answer is apposite: don’t be boring.

A political play strives to find answers or ask questions, all well and good but the diktat of all art and entertainment is this, don’t be boring. If a play is entertaining then we can use it as a vehicle to introduce people to new ideas and provoke social change but only if it grabs an audience. I would much rather watch a play that told me nothing and yet entertained me, than a play that told me concretely how to end world hunger yet bored the pants off me.

In good drama the personal is political. Romeo and Juliet transcends not because it is about young people falling in love but because it also shows how thoughtless and unexamined hate will always breed tragedy. With the characters of Danny and Nina, their issues are extremely personal and yet they realise that there might be a wider context to their suffering. The play poses the question of whether the political can truly solve the personal and vice versa or whether one is ultimately a refraction of the other.

Made in Britain is at the Old Red Lion, London, from 6th-11th January 2014

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