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Matt Trueman: Theatre could do with zooming out to give the bigger picture

A scene form Queens of Syria at the Young Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Matt Trueman
Matt Trueman is a theatre critic, journalist and blogger
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The personal is political. Theatremakers have turned the maxim of 1960s activism into a mantra of their own. Individuals sit within political systems. Our actions have social ramifications. As such, it’s possible for family dramas to contain the state of the nation or for singular narratives to tell vast, socio-political stories. Only the world is more complex than that.

I’ve spent the last week plugged into Jeremy Bowen’s incisive podcast, Our Man in the Middle East. Over 25 episodes, each less than 15 minutes long, Bowen looks back over a quarter-century reporting on the region. Each episode focuses in on a single issue or territory – the first Gulf War or the Arab Spring, say, Israel or Iran – but taken together, they form a nuanced overview of the region’s recent history. One subject puts another in context.

Slowly, it builds the sense of an intricate web, whereby everything in the Middle East is finely poised. Topple a Sunni dictator in one nation and you embolden the Shia population in another. A fruit seller’s self-immolation in a rural Tunisia market can spark a devastating civil war 4,000 miles away, leaving 500,000 dead and millions more displaced. The smallest of incidents can ripple out across the region; the butterfly effect at large in the world.

One thing that struck me about the series – and the same thought landed watching Ken Burns’ delicate 10-part documentary on the Vietnam War – is how hard theatre finds it to tell this sort of story: joined-up, zoomed-out, long-term analysis.

It suddenly seemed problematic that – in a decade of near-nightly theatregoing during which time a raft of plays have examined one aspect of the Middle East or another – I’d never seen anything that attempted to sew the specifics into the wider story.

Some of those plays have been superb. Dalia Taha’s Fireworks at London’s Royal Court was a shattering look at life in Gaza, as children played beneath Israeli shellfire. The Young Vic’s Queens of Syria reset the refugee crisis emerging out of Syria as a Greek tragedy. There have been tense political thrillers, searching verbatim plays and searing human dramas, but all of them have zoomed in. Without stepping back, we simply can’t understand the whole.

You could, I suspect, say the same about any significant socio-political subject –austerity, climate change, global inequality. Historical surveys don’t tend to fit the stage, while individual stories – human dramas – do. Theatre so often seems blinkered as a result; naive even. Drama does indignation and idealism well, empathy too, but it frequently overlooks the complex realities and context of the big picture. It stops short of the real world.

To match up, it needs to find new forms – forms such as the Tricycle’s 2009/2010 epic play cycle The Great Game, which offered an overview of Afghanistan’s history, geography, culture and economy. In refusing singularity, it admitted complexity. It pushed beyond maxims and mantras to get at the truth.

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