By Abby Dan
On both sides of the Atlantic, 2016 was a political roller coaster––and it looks like 2017 will have all the twists and turns we knew were coming, plus a few extras we can’t even dream up yet. Someday, the world’s great playwrights will cover these tumultuous years in works that look knowingly back (that old saying about hindsight being 20/20…) and teach future generations about our 21st-Century foibles. Until then, we can all enjoy these Great Political Shows, which might teach us a thing or two about our modern era. History does, after all, repeat itself…
Ralph Fiennes in Richard III at the Almeida Theatre in 2016. Photo Marc Brenner
Yes, this list is bookended by the Bard. Though not the original political playwright, he was certainly a prolific one, and the history plays teem with scandals, ethical quandaries, and lessons to be learned. Among the most powerful (and popular) of these is Richard III, which, historically, covers the conclusion of the War of the Roses while delving into the nature of evil, the costs of Richard’s pursuit of power, and how the English people––not just those in his immediate circle––suffered under his rule.
Mother Courage and Her Children
Fiona Shaw in Mother Courage And Her Children at the National Theatre in 2009. Photo: Anthony Luvera
Set in the 17th Century’s Thirty Years’ War but written in 1939, Bertold Brecht’s “Mother Courage” is the author’s response to the rise of Nazism in his native Germany, a depiction of the horrific reality of what the Second World War would do to the people of Europe. Mother Courage is a twisted morality play, taking an allegorical look at the personal costs of war while complicating the tropes of morality plays at every turn.
This House at the Garrick Theatre, currently playing. Photo: Johan Persson
This House transports audiences to the politically turbulent landscape of 1974, in which a hung parliament presides over economic crises and fist fights in parliamentary bars are abound. Votes in the House of Commons are won or lost by the narrowest of margins, and sick MPs are forced through the lobby to register their votes. Stripping the sheen of politics of its gloss and exposing the practical realities of the engine rooms of Westminster, those behind the scenes are brought into the limelight in this strikingly pertinent political drama.
Richard Armitage in The Crucible at The Old Vic in 2014. Photo: Johan Persson
Another play, another allegory––this time, Arthur Miller’s 1953 approach to the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s, which stand in for the “witch hunt” for communists undertaken by the American Government in the 1950s and 1960s. Suspicion and fear splinter the seemingly strong moral fabric of Salem, embodied by the tellingly flawed John Proctor, as Abigail Williams’ quest for power and revenge turns the town upside-down. “The Crucible” shows how a conflict built on lies can spread, dismantling civil society.
Michael Sheen and Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon at the Donmar Warehouse in 2006.
And now for something a bit more modern and plainly more political: “Frost/Nixon”, Peter Morgan’s 2006 play about the televised interviews that British TV presenter David Frost conducted with former U.S. President Richard M. Nixon in 1977, three years after he resigned from office. This dramatised––and slightly fictionalised––account of the build-up to the interviews and the interviews themselves are a study of ego, public versus private personas, and the power of the media, all deeply relevant in this day and age.
Fiddler On The Roof
Henry Goodman in Fiddler On The Roof at the Savoy Theatre in 2007.
A “Fiddler on the Roof”. Sounds crazy, no? But this beloved musical about Tevye the milkman and his family changes from a funny domestic story about small-town characters into a saga of separation and displacement at the hands of an oppressive regime. Perhaps a reminder that while political leaders may exist at a great remove from the average person, the average person remains subject to their leader’s actions. Right? Of course right!
Kristin Scott Thomas in The Audience at the Apollo in 2015. Photo: Johan Persson
A play so contemporary that scenes were edited during the original West End run to keep up with the news, Peter Morgan’s “The Audience”, in its most recent iteration, covers 64 years of British history through the window of the Queen’s weekly audiences with nine of the Prime Ministers who have served during her reign. That window proves to be a unique vantage point for the ups and downs of modern British history, and the stagecraft on display, as the Queen seemingly travels through time and leaps from her twenties to her eighties, has been dazzling in two West End productions and on Broadway. Dame Helen Mirren, who played the Queen collected an Olivier and a Tony for her portrayal of the country’s longest reigning monarch.
The cast of Hamilton on Broadway.
Political legacy, personal legacy, the birth (and afterbirth) of a nation, the pursuit of power, behind-the-scenes manipulation and deal-making, a cartoonishly maniacal ruler, international intrigue, and more are all woven into the fabric of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton”, and all are relevant in today’s political scene. But that’s not all: Miranda’s score also uses homages to other great political musicals like “1776” and “Les Miserables” to tell A. Ham’s story. Hamilton opens in the West End in October 2017.
Michael Xavier in Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2015. Photo: Nobby Clark
Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 tuner is a crash course in all of the attempts (successful and otherwise) at assassinations of U.S. Presidents, presented as a kind of trippy, evil-laced carnival/revue. The individual motivations of each assassin vary, but nearly all of them offer a glimpse at the political and ideological conflicts of his or her era, from slavery to immigration and everything in between.
James McAvoy in Macbeth at Trafalgar Studio 1 in 2013. Photo: Johan Persson
And finally, perhaps the finest theatrical examination of political ambition, this time in the absence of morality: Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”. Macbeth lets his better judgment fall away in the face of the three witches’ prophecies and his wife’s urging, which leads him to murder Duncan and order the murders of Banquo, Lady Macduff and her son to become the king. But Macbeth quickly becomes known as a “tyrant” rather than a “king”, as his violence and paranoia cause his demise.
By Abby Dan