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Exhibition: Radical Theatre

LEN PHELAN recommends an exhibition on radical theatre from the 1960s onwards which speaks to our own times

This paper has always promoted radical theatre from the days when, as the Daily Worker, it supported groups like Unity Theatre that were instrumental in introducing drama with an explicitly left-wing political intent to this country.

From the 1960s onwards, such initiatives evolved into what became known as the alternative theatre movement, when groups like the 7:84 theatre company - whose name derived from the fact that at that time 7 per cent of the population owned 84 per cent off the wealth - flourished.

For a quarter of a century, reflecting the heightened working-class and radical consciousness inspired by industrial struggles, the women's movement and the fight for racial equality and acceptance of sexual diversity, theatre challenged the old order of the drama establishment and offered alternatives that were artistically and politically radical.

That was best seen in the work of companies like 7:84, Belt and Braces and Foco Novo who found wider audiences with work that was both accessible and challenging.

In the wake of the abolition of theatre censorship in 1968 companies were created and work staged by groups traditionally unrepresented.

Feminist theatre was born, work by gay, black, Asian and disability groups was made and markedly agit-prop and inclusive community, theatre in education and experimental companies burgeoned until the funding crisis of the mid-1980s, stage managed by the Thatcher government, forced most of them to close.

Even so, the effects of that dramatic revolution still reverberate in the theatre today.

That's exemplified in the productions this paper reviews which reflect the continuing hunger nationally for theatre which engages audiences socially and politically.

So the exhibition Unfinished Histories - Re-Staging Revolutions which has just opened at the Oval House in London, along with a series of talks by leading practitioners of the period, couldn't be more timely. Its focus is on Camden and Lambeth, two key London boroughs in the alternative theatre movement.

Charting the history of alternative theatre from the 1960s to the 1980s, it features companies such as Hesitate And Demonstrate, The Phantom Captain, Sadista Sisters, Recreation Ground, Umoja and Monstrous Regiment.

On display are rare archives from the period and extensive interviews with the key practitioners who shed light on the creative practices and motivations of the time. The talks, starting next Monday, touch on many of the political and social concerns of that period.

The Oval House itself was instrumental in promoting work by women, gay people and the socially disadvantaged and it's the focus of the first three sessions of talks, with due tribute being paid to the late Kate Crutchely who programmed work at the venue throughout the 1980s.

In December, a session on the young people's theatre company Theatre Centre includes play readings from work by David Holman, Noel Greig and Lisa Evans, whose Stamping, Shouting And Singing Home is one of the most powerful indictments of slavery in the US for young people yet written.

The significance of black theatre in London in the 1970s and 80s also comes into focus, with the pioneering work of companies such as Black Theatre of Brixton, Theatre of Black Women, Carib Theatre, Foco Novo and Umoja evaluated in a discussion led by Olusola Oyeleye, Anton Phillips, Gordon Case and Bernardine Evaristo.

Just before the seasonal festivities, there's a session on alternative pantos of the time - Jingleball, Cinderella Or A Woman's Right To Shoes, Fanny Whittington And Her Glorious Pussy, - and work at the Drill Hall, Oval House and elsewhere that exploited the inherent gender confusions of the genre.

That's a great line-up to accompany the exhibition which is obviously a must for the radical theatre historian and for today's practitioners and audiences with a hunger for an alternative to the apolitical blandness of the mainstream.

 

Details of the exhibition and events, which run until December 21, are available at www.ovalhouse.com

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