A number of theatre pieces are addressing the rise of rightwing extremists – but can the arts community really hope to make a difference?
Two weeks ago I attended the launch rally of Expose the BNP, a campaign that aims to equip journalists with the tools to report effectively on the British National Party. During the question-and-answer session, Ranjit Atwal of the Broadway, a small arts venue in BNP heartland Barking, stood up to tell us about a politically-inspired festival they're curating in April, called Spin the Election. The programme will include A Day at the Racists, a new play by Anders Lustgarten that opened this week at the Finborough Theatre in South London.
Lustgarten's play is just one of several theatre events in the capital at the moment that address the rise of the BNP. But can these productions really further the debate around racism, or is this merely the liberal middle-class arts community trying to make itself feel current and politically engaged? Say what you like about the London theatre fringe, but it's hardly the traditional stomping ground of your average BNP supporter.
The issue is interesting. Theatre may often preach to the converted – just think of David Hare – but that's not to say that the converted don't have a lot to learn. Set in Barking, A Day at the Racists charts how a former Labour activist's growing discontent leads him into the lap of the local BNP, a group whose supposed modernisations make it possible for him to forget his instinctive abhorrence of the party's racist and exclusionary message. Lustgarten's brilliantly observed play forces us to look beyond the comfortable anti-BNP rhetoric of the liberal media and consider the conditions that make an extreme right-wing party seem, at least for a very tiny percentage of the electorate, a valid political option. Rex Obano's play Decade, produced at Battersea's Theatre503 earlier this year, does something similar, forcing audience members who might not ordinarily be sympathetic to empathise with BNP members by casting them as silent supporters at a local party meeting.
But can this kind of theatre go further, and directly influence communities themselves? Karena Johnson, recently appointed artistic director of the Broadway, believes it can: by talking directly to the people it describes, she reasons, it might lead them to reconsider their own engagement with the politics around them. I don't doubt Johnson when she says the Broadway's audience is very different from the Finborough's – she describes the Barking community as proudly working-class, and says she expects the play to receive a much more lively reception in east London. I'd be thrilled if she were right, but I'm just not sure it can.
I get the uncomfortable feeling, particularly when reading the marketing material from another current BNP-inspired play, Philip Ridley's Moonfleece – the press release of which tells us that the show will be touring to "some of the UK's most disadvantaged areas, where the British National Party has made recent gains, playing to audiences that rarely see challenging, professional drama" – that this desire to change things is really just a conceit, albeit laudable, of the middle-class arts establishment.
Theatres across the country, even those in the most disadvantaged locations, such as the Doncaster Little Theatre – where Moonfleece is also playing – tend to be patronised by already open-minded members of their local communities; it's not often that this includes potential BNP supporters. The stark truth is that it's not easy to reach the type of people the producers would most like to get to. There's only so far that theatre can go.