Cutting the Tightrope: the Divorce of Politics from Art

Arcola Theatre, London
ADMA Productions in association with Offstage Theatre
Until May 18
Running Time 2 hours, including interval
Director: Cressida Brown, Kirsty Housley
Playwrights: Hassan Abdulrazzak, Mojisola Adebayo, Phillip Arditti, Sonali Bhattacharyya, Nina Bowers, Roxy Cook, Ed Edwards, Afsaneh Gray, Dawn King, Ahmed Masoud, Nina Segal, Sami Abu Wardeh
Cast: Salman Akhtar, Sara Masry, Ruth Lass, Jessica Murrain, Waleed Elgadi, Issam Al Ghussain, Mark Oosterveen



The arts have always had a role in saying the unsayable, making it all but inevitable that Arts Council England’s effort to clarify advice issued early this year on the risk of making political statements would only inflame the defiant mood.

Director Cressida Brown felt compelled to make an even more direct dramatic statement than her “Walking the Tightrope” production – a response to the 2015 Gaza conflict, which explored the tension between art and politics.

Nearly ten years on, and with co-director Kirsty Housley and a group of playwrights who span every divide, she cuts the tightrope and goes beyond tension to divorce, when every regular in an Arcola audience knows separating politics from theatre is not an option.

The questions therefore are how overt and raw the statements should be and whether short plays written and rehearsed in the space of weeks are full-blown art or transitory sketches, highly professional as they are.

The production implies the time for any subtlety is past: hints are arguably an inadequate response to our times and the watermelon that has a starring role is very directly linked to the colours of the Palestinian flag.

Aesthetic sensibilities apart, the urgent need is for active debate into which the audience is drawn by its own consent and, as one of the plays makes clear, no-one is obliged to stay.  We have the freedom to leave.

While Gaza is undoubtedly the central taboo the series of short plays confronts, it acquires the status of a metaphor for all the other subjects that anyone who would rather go to a romantic musical or watch cuddly kittens on YouTube prefers to ignore.

They are summed up hilariously in the short play based on a son introducing his politically active girlfriend to his parents when even the topic of the weather is no longer safe when the climate is changing.

After an extremely awkward silence, the only acceptable remark seems to be the absurdly meaningless: “The wine is nice”.

Perhaps the biggest nod to anyone who thinks taking a more political stance is a reputational risk is that the playwrights, while allowing their names to be published, do not put their names to each individual play.

Equally, the cast members play many parts in this very collective response to the real-life drama that demands a political and artistic response.

Barbara Lewis © 2024.