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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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