Can theatre go beyond entertainment? Should it?

As RENT, the Lent Term Musical, went up at the ADC, I wanted to have a little think about the role theatre can, or should, play in society. Is theatre just entertainment, or is there scope for meaningful engagement with social issues?

Over its run, RENT is working with Dhiverse, raising money and awareness for this local charity which provides support for Cambridge’s HIV positive community. RENT, arguably unlike many musicals, is no jazz-hand extravaganza but rather a gritty look at a real epidemic at a time when cures were essentially nonexistent. Director Gabbie Bird wrote us a small paragraph about how RENT engages with social issues, whilst retaining its artistic side:

“Rent isn’t a nice musical about romanticised heroes who come and save the day to beat an enemy. It’s about real people with their own flaws who get through life with one another. It’s about celebrating individuality, and not shying away from the realities of drug abuse, homelessness, HIV, and dysfunctional relationships, but showing how these things are just one single part of a person’s identity. It challenges what is understood as ‘normal’ and asks the audience to abandon prejudice as they step into the world of rock music and more where the artist is at the centre, and every individual has a story to tell.”

As Mimi (Meg Thorpe) lies dying from AIDS, the audience cannot help but feel some pain and loss.

As Mimi (Meg Thorpe) lies dying from AIDS, the audience cannot help but feel some pain and loss.

RENT is hardly the first, and by no means the last, production in Cambridge to confront social issues.

Earlier this term we saw Lean at the Corpus Playroom, which looked at the topic of (male) anorexia. Rather than seeking to give broad answers, Lean engaged with the issue on the level of its two characters. Perhaps most importantly, Lean wasn’t just a play about anorexia – it took the illness and made it a central aspect, but beyond that built a fully-fledged drama: at times humourous, at times shocking, and never patronising.

This kind of production didn’t assume to ‘educate’ its audience, but engaged our empathy and gave us a link to an illness that we might otherwise not have encountered.

The force-feeding scene - not pleasant viewing, but engaging and thought-provoking.

The force-feeding scene – not pleasant viewing, but engaging and thought-provoking.

Coming up next term is an extremely exciting production of bare (ADC Mainshow – Week 3), which follows the story of two gay young men in a Catholic boarding school in the United States. Similarly to Lean, the beauty of bare is that we see the problem through the characters. Issues of family, vulnerability, and ostracisation all spiral out of the central problem of this play, which is that Peter and Jason cannot be honest about themselves – to those who surround them or even to each other.

Particularly powerfully for me, as someone who has found Cambridge so incredibly welcoming as an LGBT+ person, bare hits home the importance of acceptance, and the terrifying reality of prejudice and its harrowing consequences.

Joe Pitts (Peter in bare) will take us through Peter's heartbreaking journey - touching on stigma, sexuality, and death.

Joe Pitts (Peter in bare) will take us through Peter’s heartbreaking journey – touching on stigma, sexuality, and death.

Robbie Taylor-Hunt’s also wrote us something about his upcoming adaptation of Othello.

“Othello (ADC Mainshow – Week 4) will be exploring sexism in the military, workforce, and society through its gender-bending. With Othello and Iago as women, the play begins to look at the problems and pressures that women face in male-dominated high-power professions. Othello also has the added difficulty of facing prejudice as an ethnic minority, and therefore has to deal with the double-discrimination of being black and a woman, which presents a unique set of challenges.

Desdemona as a man younger than his wife, who stays at home while she works, and is treated as gentle and emasculated. Therefore, the production also considers harmful expectations of masculinity, which – after all – affect the equality and opportunities of both genders. These considerations will be explored within what will remain one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays and most powerfully heart-wrenching tragedies.”

Even in the straightforward 'fun' panto, Zak Ghazi-Torbati received the odd cross-dressing related heckle. Some were downright unpleasant.

Even in the straightforward ‘fun’ panto, Zak Ghazi-Torbati received the odd cross-dressing related heckle. Some were downright unpleasant.

These examples are but a few of the plays put on this term, and coming up in Easter. In the wider world of theatre there are so many plays which engage social issues. Theatre can be so important in its treatment of social messages because, through a show, actors and audiences engage with people and worlds that they might never touch in real life.

This gives us the opportunity to engage with so many different issues. Add to this the power of a strong performance, be it soliloquy or ballad, and theatre becomes a real engine for empathy.

I'm not saying we shouldn't have a laugh at the ADC. Keep the sketches coming.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a laugh at the ADC. Keep the sketches coming.

Of course, I am not suggesting that ‘fun shows’, or even tragedies that don’t engage broader social issues, are not important and worthwhile elements of the theatrical canon. I just believe that, especially in a theatrical environment as experimental and talented as Cambridge, the social messages in theatre can be so wonderfully expanded upon, and this is something to really celebrate.

Photo Credit: Johannes Hjorth

  • I’m sorry but…

    Most of the shows in Cambridge are not socially engaging: they are the same, tired old plays wheeled out every three or four years and given ‘a new lease of life’ (read: performed in the same old way with a different cast). Shakespeare is put on far too often, usually without saying anything even vaguely new (or doing the classic “look we switched the gender of one of the main characters look how great we are”). Controversial plays are rarely put on – and when they are it’s the same few appearing like clockwork (i.e. Equus, so controversial it’s been on the ADC Stage 3 times in 11 years).
    They rarely take risks and move out of the box, except for fringe shows at Corpus Playrooms that don’t get the attention they deserve or the occasional ADC Mainshow (The Strip – odd but fantastic; Sophiatown – a play with resonance and a real message). For an amateur environment such as Cambridge, the whole point is to do something a bit different and truly experiment, and not just with Footlights’ Smokers: we’re a bunch of students with a fully functioning theatre for god’s sake. The ADC, sadly, fails to live up to its true potential to engage: it would rather float by and function than risk it and see what happens.

    • Well

      You sound like fun.

    • A consideration…

      If the ADC didn’t commission Mainshows that bring in audience members and income (e.g. Shakespeares, Equus, etc.) then they wouldn’t have the money to be able to ‘risk it’ with less well-known shows like Sophiatown, ADC Lateshows, Corpus Playroom shows and new writing. The theatre doesn’t have endless money to throw into risky projects 100% of the time. Plus if students want to put on classics and try to engage with them and develop them in interesting ways then that shouldn’t be discouraged. I agree that we want affecting, thought-provoking, challenging theatre, of course, but in reality there has to be balance.

    • Counterpoint

      “3 times in 11 years” seems pretty frequent, but bear in mind that a significant slice of the ADC’s audience is turned over every 3-4 years, so that’s one performance of Equus per “student lifetime” as it were.

      There’s also an unfortunate trade off that you have to make – running a “fully functioning theatre” is expensive. So while the ADC and Corpus shows get a lot of support and publicity compared to college drama, the infrastructure required to provide that support needs to be paid for out of show revenue, which means that a higher proportion of their shows need to be commercial successes. Not to mention that the larger funding bodies often need to recoup their losses from funding e.g. new writing or Edinburgh shows – CUADC for example tends to lose between three and eight thousand pounds per year on funding shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, on the basis that sending a few shows to Edinburgh raises the profile of Cambridge drama and provides the actors, directors and production team involved with valuable experience. For this to be sustainable, the club needs to then make bank on the Panto, Shakespeare, musicals etc.

      If you want to see more experimental or controversial theatre, then colleges like Fitz, Pembroke and Queens’ have regular performance slots in their own venues but often struggle to find enough applications to fill them, because of a fixation among some directors that they want to put on shows at the ADC/Corpus and nothing else will do, despite the fact that doing a show in a college venue under the banner of BATS or Pembroke Players is actually financially much more viable if you want to do experimental theatre and don’t expect to sell a lot of tickets.

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