While I believe that theatre can present powerful ‘messages’ of a social-political kind in fiction drama, there is a special power when the protagonists are played by themselves. This does not mean that anyone standing on a stage telling their story will have a powerful effect. Jeremy Weller is obviously a brilliant dramaturge-editor-director who finds just the right people and then supports them in a constructive style, both theatrically and surely also personally. My evidence for the latter delicate role is that they stay the course, often over months.
The fascination of his performances is that one is seeing the lives of the characters, which although they have obviously been ‘worked’ on, are so raw. The drama must be true, we feel. Then,however bland one’s own life seems to have been , we are drawn in and seem to live the drama ourselves.Support then comes not only from our admiration for the contribution to theatre but for the social outcomes. The social implications refer for the waking-up of the audience, but also the results in terms of social recognition and confidence that seem to come to the ‘players’.
A few years ago I attended a meeting at the RSAMD (organized by Suspect Culture, I think) where professional actors showed great hostility to Jeremy Weller, on the basis of his assumed exploitation of his participants. It was said that they were more or less manipulated into exposing their personal lives in the cause of his own fame. Logically this might be possible, however, I would argue that however low in the status hierarchy his performers might be, they still have ego strength. They know what they are doing. Further, they are not people in the business of ingratiating themselves, as we see from their spirit. They would not agree to work week after week in rehearsal, perform day after day, hold themselves in readiness for tours after intervals and so on. One cannot generalize about ‘community theatre’, but in terms of the Grassmarket Project, I would say that I have no reservations.
What is my evidence? To take the most extreme example, working near the Grassmarket and walking round Edinburgh generally, it was clear that the cast of GLAD, who were to be seen much around, were more confident people after their theatre experience. Their self-image was enhanced, but at the same time, they seemed to take for granted that they deserved their new status. No big deal.
(About to see Glad for the second time, I met Cowboy and told him I was looking forward to seeing him again, he just said, ‘Right hen, see you.’ Fans were the most natural thing in the world.)
Of course, the work is political. The trouble is that it is very complicated to get even political arguments to have any effect. And it is effects that count. The danger, as with the best documentary photography, is that the audience is limited, often converted already, but most importantly will ‘feel good about feeling bad’. And that is that. My own thinking then is that this is better than nothing. In the end an informed public is better than an ignorant one. To expect some direct result though is bound to be disappointing.
Did the work on prisoners being killed by police and prison officers, lead in part to the public concern about this? I hope it did, but it is hard to say. Certainly the old hostels in the Grassmarket have been transformed, but because of Glad? Again, hard to say. What is sure is that Jeremy Weller is perspicacious about finding issues that are about to arise in the public consciousness and helping them to advance.
Does this form of extremely naturalistic theatre show us reality? A kind of reality, yes. But it is heightened, condensed into two hours or so, given some slight narrative form. Glad even included nice elements of humour, but then Terry had that up his sleeve all the time anyway. The audience certainly believes they are seeing reality and that is part of the power. Good theatre always has that promise, from Hamlet to Ibsen, and they don’t appear realistic. Human beings need to be told stories, and good stories seem real.
As an aside, I must say that I used to be very naive, believeing that all the ‘characters’ in the early works were enacting themselves. It was a long time until I realised that David Benson was both ‘real’ and professional and that there other ‘real actors’ in even Glad. Ethics are deeply involved with the Weller work. On two levels. Are the stories he tells us true? Is he indeed acting immorally in ‘using’ ordinary people to show us freak shows in which we voyeurs get a thrill and come away glad that we are respectable people able to maintain a mask of so-called normality? In terms of truth, one need have no doubt. Independent evidence confirms it. Homelessness is a reality, the old men do cope in a brave way, but should they have to? The physical and mental abuse of women comes more and more on to the social and political agenda. The movement of ‘survivors of the mental health’ services, confirm the Mad stories. The ‘Bad’ young men and the profoundly unsatisfactory incarceration of them can be read about constantly now in the newspapers. Sex workers of all kinds do lead hard lives and are strong women.The statistics about young men dying in custody are public knowledge.
Perhaps the most revelation came in Soldiers, where by every tradition, the general public is not allowed to know what goes on within the military. However, many, many families will have heard first-hand stories from fathers and brothers about individual experiences of good and bad things that happened. It is entirely plausible to me that a Croatian General will have had experiences of atrocities committed to his troops, while being accused of war crimes himself. Our long conversation with him, and being acquainted with the terrible hatreds in the former Yugoslavia was a memorable experience. Such a clever, charming man, actively wanting to come from Canada to risk his life in continuing the old conflicts not only of WWII but going back to the warriors of the Middle Ages, makes one despair of human nature.
But nearer home, the terrible Northern Ireland stories of an honest Scottish soldier were painful too. We all need such exposure of real life. If you are a conventional patriot you should know them, and I as a pacifist obviously want them in the open.
I would like to think that I am one of those ‘converted’ who are glad to support Weller’s work. But he has influenced my life in the sense that he has added a significant sense of urgency to my social position. The trouble then is that apart from voting for the Labor Party, maintaining my small work for the Peace Pledge Union, writing to my MP at various junctures and supporting other relevant causes, I carry on my life as is. To my shame.