Photo: Jacob King/PA
“What drives me to get up in the morning and write is what makes me angry, annoyed, scared,” says playwright Emily White. Like her previous works, White’s upcoming production, Joseph K and the Cost of Living, which opens at Swansea Grand next month, seeks to make politics personal. It is a reinvention of Kafka’s nightmare The Trial, whose protagonist is unexpectedly arrested but is not told why and always maintains his innocence.
White was a teenager when she first read the novel, about “being trapped in this kind of bureaucratic machine,” but returned to it more recently after sensing that a “creeping authoritarianism” was going on, with the rights of people marginalized.” being retracted.” by governments around the world. She continues: “In my version, it’s a story about the state-directed persecution of particular individuals and the reasons for that. And, deep down, we are very much in Britain today, in this world that we live in right now.” The play is set, she says, in a country that feels as though it is on the brink of resistance and revolution. As such, the story incorporates food banks, homelessness, environmental protests, strikes, and the government’s attempt to limit direct action.
Still, White says she wants to make sure her works are fun, too, and hopes this one will inspire those who see it. “A theater production can’t change the world, but I think it can make people think about something in a different way… When bankers get £500,000 bonuses, while nurses have to use food banks to feed their families, something is very wrong. ”
The theater industry is also facing the impact of a bleak economic reality, with the cost of living crisis and the hangover from the pandemic. Last month, Oldham Coliseum announced the cancellation of all its performances from the end of March, as funding from the Arts Council for England (ACE) was cut completely. Stiflingly low wages have prompted the Equity union to launch a campaign calling for a 17% weekly pay increase for performers and stage managers working in the West End.
“People are leaving the industry, to be completely honest,” says White. “There is a mass exodus of people who do not come from wealthy backgrounds and therefore cannot continue to do so. Which is very, very sad.” She fears the knock-on effect of funding cuts on the type of work that is organized. “The theater is in danger of being just a museum piece, not current and not addressing the things that are happening right now around the world, and that is really important to not become obsolete.”
Staged as part of a three-part National Theater of Wales project, White’s play is among a wave of plays exploring the harsh impacts of the cost-of-living crisis. These include Travis Alabanza and Debbie Hannan’s Sound of the Underground at London’s Royal Court, which considers precarious pay for drag performers, and the Northern Stage adaptation of the film I, Daniel Blake, due for release in May.
At the Mercury Theater in Colchester from March is They Don’t Pay? We won’t pay! , Deborah McAndrew’s adaptation of a 1974 Italian farce by Dario Fo and Franca Rame. The original showed the looting of a supermarket in protest of the economic crisis. What can we expect from McAndrew’s version? “Sort of a shotgun, state of the nation moment,” she says, envisioning a “lawless night with, hopefully, a moment or two of reflection and genuine rage.” In the mix for the final script are jokes about Matt Hancock and a possible part of Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs. “It gets more and more surreal,” adds McAndrew. “It’s all one big meta joke. There is a lot of breaking of the fourth wall”. It will also be hard-hitting, including an exploration of police corruption.
McAndrew’s own theater company, Claybody, in Stoke-on-Trent, was one of those that received a boost in funding from ACE, but she is aware of the bigger picture. She hears from friends who work in the West End that “there are big problems there just because people can’t afford to go”, citing the pandemic as a factor behind the backstage staff shortages. “There is a particular crisis in stage direction. They work really hard hours… I think the pandemic did affect people and made them [them] rethink their lives.”
But she remains optimistic about the better days to come. “As a theater person, I think there’s nothing like a shared experience in a room with actors right in front of you doing that and enacting that story for you, as the audience: the unique dynamic of each show,” she said. she says she. “I don’t think that will ever go away, and that people don’t want it.”