Theatre Uncut began in 2010 as an artistic response to the cuts announced by the coalition government, in opposition to the impact that austerity has had on the arts. This year’s crop of five short plays, written by a selection of upcoming and established playwrights, are based on the theme ‘Knowledge is power. Knowledge is change’, exploring with mixed success, the way in which the politics of the last few years have affected social relations in the UK.
The driving ideas behind Theatre Uncut are, I think, rather interesting. The project aims to provide a rapid response to current political events in a way which the arts are seldom able to do—but the obvious risk with producing plays in such a short space of time is that the quality suffers, and indeed these five plays are certainly a mixed bag. One or two are of genuine quality; the rest have some interesting moments without quite making the kind of profound political statement that the audience is waiting for.
The best play of the lot is in my eyes the first: The Finger of God. It tells two stories side by side, which revolve around the National Lottery, but not quite as we know it. In the post-austerity age the Lottery organisers, in an attempt to bolster dwindling participation, decide that the only way to spice up playing is to introduce some punitive measures alongside the rewards. This outlandish idea becomes a huge hit with a public only too willing to take pleasure in others’ suffering, whilst being simultaneously obsessed with gambling at the highest stakes. And of course, to keep up public interest the punishments must keep increasing and increasing until things spiral out of control.
The politics of this particular play were pitched just right: it offered a satire of right-wing politics which was both sharp and witty. Some of the other plays fare less well, slipping into tired left-wing clichés about unfeeling capitalists, or complaining about social problems without offering any insight into what their causes might be. The viewer is presented with a wide range of responses to the way in which society is changing, but only some of which really resonate. Most of the plays are imaginatively conceived, but they all have an experimental feel to them which makes the whole experience rather hit-and-miss.
Scripts aside, the quality of the production is truly excellent, with strong performances from all four actors involved. They make use of a set which transforms quickly and imaginatively to create the plays’ simple scenes, and the whole performance felt both polished and cohesive. The standout performance undoubtedly came from Ruth Gibson, who epitomised the range and passion that all the cast exhibited throughout their various roles.
Theatre Uncut seems to me to be a project worth continuing, with potential to produce work of real quality, some of which is on exhibition in this batch of plays. What’s more the plays are available to perform free of rights and no doubt will offer some interesting material to amateur companies and schools up and down the UK. With such a range of subjects and in quality it makes interesting viewing from a political standpoint and also a theatrical one; a demonstration of what can make a good and a bad play, as well as what makes a good and bad political argument.