When Theatre Uncut was awarded a Bank of Scotland Herald Angel Award during this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it was vindication for a radical idea borne from adversity. Theatre Uncut''s three programmes of brand new plays were performed script-in-hand in the Traverse Theatre bar at ten in the morning. Many of the plays had been penned just a few days before by an array of international writers, and were performed by a top-notch cast pulled together from other Fringe shows with only a couple of hours rehearsal.
The plays themselves were akin to living newspapers, responding to current events with a sense of immediacy that mattered more than any rough edges there might have been. There weren't many. Nor were the plays old-fashioned polemics, but offered up instead a more lateral set of responses which retained a very human and poetic heart amongst the seriousness of their concerns.
The new works ranged from a piece by American playwright Neil LaBute that looked at the relationship between a father and his Occupy protester son, to David Greig's hot off the press reaction to the release from prison and subsequent re-arrest of the Naked Rambler. In-between these came Kieran Hurley's timely response to Olympic Games fever, as well as new works by writers from Greece, Syria, Spain and Iceland.
One of the most moving plays in the Theatre Uncut programme was Spine, Clara Brennan's look at the effect of library closures as well as the power of words. Brennan's monologue seemed to characterise the spirit of an idea which began as a conversation around a kitchen table between director Hannah Price and playwright Mark Ravenhill.
“It was October 2010, and the UK coalition government had just announced their cuts in public spending,” explains Theatre Uncut co-director Emma Callander. “As theatre-makers, Hannah and Mark wanted to respond to what was going on somehow, but weren't sure how.”
Out of this came a set of plays that were performed during the first Theatre Uncut in 2011. This programme of eight short pieces included works by Ravenhill, Dennis Kelly and a piece by David Greig called Fragile, which cast the audience as a mental health worker attempting to soothe one of her clients.
“It felt very vital,” says Callander. “Not just because of the plays, which were brilliant, but because of the way they were done. By saying that anyone could download the plays for free and do them anywhere, there were eighty-nine performances happening all over the UK, and this allowed people to talk about the effect of the spending cuts through theatre.”
Following this year's showcase at the Traverse, this second edition of Theatre Uncut has gone global, with some 187 groups already signed up to perform the plays. These include a group led by a drama teacher from Japan who saw the plays in Edinburgh, and will now be overseeing a production with her students taking place on a Japanese air base.
“Something like that could only have come out of the Edinburgh Festival,” says Callendar.
As she talks, Callander is taking a break from rehearsing Greig's Naked Rambler play for the Young Vic with leading Scottish actress, Lesley Hart. In Scotland itself, the Traverse will again take the lead, with performances of five of the plays this Wednesday night, including Kieran Hurley's London 2012. Scots/Swedish company Creative Electric will present five Theatre Uncut plays at the Bongo Club, also in Edinburgh, next Sunday night, while this Wednesday there will be afternoon performances at the Central Halls. In Glasgow, the Tron Young Theatre company, Glasgow University Drama Society and former students of the Royal Conservatoire will give their interpretations of some of the plays. There will also be performances in Perth, Aberdeenshire and North Berwick.
“There's a real hunger for political theatre now in a way that there wasn't a couple of years ago, when it was almost a dirty word,” says Callander. “I think having a government you're in opposition to can be a really creative thing, but Theatre Uncut can only exist as long as it's needed. There's no vanity involved in it, but as long as something needs to be questioned, we'll question it through Theatre Uncut. If not, Theatre Uncut won't exist. Imagine that, a perfect world without any public spending cuts...Listen to me, wishing our theatre away.”
Theatre Uncut 2012 will take place between November 12th-18th. A full map of performances across the world can be found at https://maps.google.com/maps/ms?msid=204655771753689489168.0004cb08515d961b37d1b&msa=0&ll=56.005676,-3.188095&spn=0.149725,0.589828
The Herald, November 13th 2012