Photo: Jacob Koning/PA
“What drives me to get up in the morning and write is what makes me angry, upsets me, scares me,” says playwright Emily White. Like her previous plays, White’s next production, Joseph K and the Cost of Living, at Swansea Grand next month, seeks to make the political personal. It is a re-imagining of Kafka’s nightmarish The Trial, whose main character is unexpectedly arrested but not told what for and always maintains his innocence.
White was a teenager when she first read the novel, about being “stuck in this kind of bureaucratic machine,” but she recently returned to it after feeling there was a “creeping authoritarianism” going on, where the rights of marginalized people were ‘recovered’. by governments around the world”. She continues: “In my version, it is a story about state-led persecution of certain individuals and the reasons behind it. And in the background, we are very much in Britain today, in this world that we live in now. The play is set, she says, in a country that feels as if it is teetering on the brink of resistance and revolution. As such, the story encompasses food banks, homelessness, environmental protests, strikes and the government’s attempt to limit direct action.
Still, White says she wants to make sure her plays are fun too, and hopes it will inspire those who watch them. “A theatrical production cannot change the world, but I think it can make people think about it in a different way… If bankers are given £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 of the pandemic. Last month, Oldham Coliseum announced the cancellation of all its performances from the end of March, as funding from the Arts Council England (ACE) had completely stopped. Stiflingly low wages have prompted the Equity union to launch a campaign calling for a 17% weekly wage increase for artists and stage management 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 it. That is very, very sad.” She fears the knock-on effect of cuts in the type of work being staged. “Theatre is in danger of becoming just a museum piece — not current and not addressing the things that are going on in the world right now, and that’s really important not to get outdated.”
White’s play, staged as part of a three-part National Theater Wales project, is part of a wave of works exploring the harsh impact 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 wages for drag performers, and Northern Stage’s adaptation of the film I, Daniel Blake, which premieres in May.
At Colchester’s Mercury Theater from March, 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 against the economic crisis. What can we expect from McAndrew’s version? “Some sort of scattergun, state of the nation moment,” she says, imagining an “anarchic evening with hopefully a moment or two of reflection and genuine anger.” The mix for the final script includes jokes about Matt Hancock and possibly a bit about Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs. “It just gets more surreal,” adds McAndrew. “It’s all a big meta joke. There is a lot of talk about breaking the fourth wall.” It will also hit hard, including an investigation into police corruption.
McAndrew’s own theater company, Claybody, in Stoke-on-Trent, was among those who received an increase in ACE funding, 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 behind-the-scenes staff shortage. “There is a particular crisis in stage management. They work really hard hours… I think the pandemic has affected and made people [them] rethink their lives.”
But she remains optimistic about better days to come. “As a theater person, I believe there’s nothing like a shared experience in a room with actors right in front of you doing that thing and playing that story to you as an audience — the unique dynamic of each show,” she says. “I don’t believe that will ever go away, and people don’t want it.”