Political theatre most often means governmental and national politics, exploring the structures of leadership, the top level functions of parties and, usually, the life of the Westminster set. David Hare’s stage and television dramas like I’m Not Running and Roadkill are about the machinations of leadership, while even Netflix’s adaptation of Sarah Vaughan’s novel Anatomy of a Scandal looked at the consequences of a rape allegation made against a cabinet minister. So, the world premiere of Teunkie Van Der Sluijs’s Tikkun Olam performed simultaneously in the small studio theatre at Riverside Studios and live streamed to an international online audience, offers something a little different, a community-focused story about the building of a Holocaust memorial which stirs up local protest and questions the integrity of a Labour candidate running for their seat. With a focus on identity, privilege and the extent to which history is imposed upon us, Van Der Sluijs’s 90-minute play has much to say about the local / national balance.
Part of Riverside Studio’s mini-festival of new writing in partnership with Original Theatre Company, showcasing the three shortlisted contenders for the Originals Playwriting Award, each performed once over three nights, Tikkun Olam is the last to take to the stage as a script-in-hand reading. The drama establishes three sets of character perspectives – Labour candidate Steve Alexander and his researcher Dan championing the memorial for ambiguous, possibly entirely point-scoring reasons, influencer and activist Leah who they to convince to support them and Mary who heads the community protest group hoping to save their small plot from redevelopment.
For much of the play, these groups interact in clearly demarcated ways, combinations of which establish the political and personal dramas that emerge as a Public Enquiry into the build looms. It is conventionally structured with scenes taking place in domestic or office locations primarily, and requires some speechifying to establish the opposing positions. But Tikkun Olam‘s subject matter proves the starting point for a number of knotty debates that morph across the period of the play, continually shifting perspectives on the memorial, its meaning and its consequences.
Though perhaps the least fully explored, the initial focus is on the nimbyism of local residents objecting to the proposed Holocaust memorial largely, it seems, because it is being built in their park which, due to its proximity to the Houses of Parliament, is interpreted as a form of political profiteering, making a local space into a national tourist attraction. With statues already celebrating the Suffragettes and acknowledging the slave trade within their small patch of greenery, Mary’s views are eventually made to feel narrow and obstructive, protectionist in all the wrong ways.
But it doesn’t start that way and Van Der Sluijs tries to give them more depth as the story unfolds, creating a balance in the text that openly explores the appropriateness of a commemorative monument to an international event when Britain fails to acknowledge others in the same way. Van Der Sluijs, it seems, is working through these varied arguments for himself including the propensity to build on the few remaining spots of green land and through Mary (played by Diana Quick), he also looks at the pressure of urbanisation in large cities where space is precious so residents like Mary with no gardens must reconcile themselves to losing outdoor recreational areas for the greater good. It is this part of the play that is most concerned with the local, micro perspectives in which concerns about facilities and access are pitted against big society requirements and political party game playing.
In testing these views in the mouths of his characters, it is not long before Van Der Sluijs decides that Mary’s perspective must fall away, sidelined towards the end and curdling into a failure to recognise she is living in a different kind of present. It creates a more cliched view of local protest driven by bigotry, lack of compassion or understanding and a desire to cling to antiquated notions of a Britain that never was, championing achievement rather than choosing to look at an ever-present reminder of death as Mary argues. It is almost too easy to reduce and typecast the character in this way and to dilute these local concerns by equating them entirely with intolerance. Perhaps in a future draft Mary could be just someone who doesn’t want to cut down trees to build anything, and perhaps giving her a companion would even-up the stakes a little. Extremism may be more dramatically entertaining but winning over the moderates is the hardest part of local politics.
The bulk of Tikkun Olam focuses on the relationships between Steve, Dan and Leah instead as they join forces to make a case for building the memorial. And here it is Leah, played by Debbie Korley, who is the driving force of the drama, the person who needs to be convinced to harness the power of her social media following to back the campaign and to emerge from the safety of her own online anonymity to stand up for the things she believes in. There are a couple of quite interesting layers in Leah’s story, the first exploring the value of internet activism and its effect on political decision-making, something which the politicians hope to harness initially to pressure decision-makers into approving the memorial plans but also to bolster’s Steve’s profile ready for the next election.
The extent to which Leah’s head is turned by the power she has is well managed across the 90-minutes, and while Van Der Sluijs doesn’t explicitly ask questions about her vanity or desire to influence – Korley plays Leah as a rather sober, straightforward creation – her (slightly unconvincing and sudden) proximity to Dan in particular starts to blur the boundaries of her integrity, although the romance subplot adds very little to the overall story. Why she is so easily convinced to help them is unclear, is it that she trusts their sincerity or is merely won over by the appearance of it, the relationship with Dan may overcome her objections or perhaps it is just a cause she wants to fight? Nonetheless, as they form a coalition, the play does raise some unanswered questions about the cost of that for Leah in the period after the Public Enquiry and whether any of it was worth putting her reputation on the line.
Leah also asks some valuable questions about the nature of identity and how far these are aligned to physical geographical boundaries, as well as cultural and religious commonalities. As a black, Jewish woman, the concept of singular heritage that Mary, and to an extent Dan, cling to are challenged by the different experience that she brings and how it reflects on the collective symbols of history all around us. Much of this is a deliberate counterpoint to Mary’s arguments, and where she sees a lack of connection or culpability between the Holocaust and her leafy grove in Westminster, Leah gives voice to notions of silent complicity and memorialisation as a reminder of inactivity both during and after the Second World War, asking the age-old question of who and what are these monuments for – a focal point for bereaved survivors and families, a national symbol of sacrifice and tragedy for those who weren’t there or a prod to the conscience and understanding of future generations.
And this leads neatly into Steve and Dan’s motivation for championing the creation of a Holocaust memorial, something which remains ambiguous for much of the play as political cache contends with career ambition and the demands of constituency politics, and Van Der Sluijs is interested in that interaction between Steve’s personal beliefs and values with his immediate plans for advancement, using the memorial project as a springboard to greater things. Yet, Jake Fairbrother’s Steve is probably the least explicit character, held back for much of the play and hardly revealing his motivations that give the actor little to work with beyond the gravitas of authority. There is much more that the writer could say here, not least about the fleetingly referenced Antisemitism within the Labour Party that should have far more space in the text given the subject matter, expanding Steve’s own reference to allowing the Party to use his race to get onto the ballot and the effect of Steve’s position as a candidate rather than an elected official seeking endorsement throughout could add valuable contrasts to a character who largely sits on the surface.
Dan is quite a different proposition, more fully formed than Steve but a junior party member open about his lack of interest in the memorial other than as a tool to get them noticed. Dan’s trajectory is perhaps an unexpected one given his early enthusiasm for the project, his kindness and the developing relationship with Leah, but Dan comes to typify a self-aware white privilege, one that proves equally toxic. Played by Luke Thompson, his Dan is as quietly ambitious about the future as Steve and potentially dangerously under-invested in his role. He is competent, kind, even likeable and Thompson, in his first contemporary play for some time, is at ease with Dan’s humour and fast-talking amiability, lulling the audience into believing Dan is innocuous before a few gasp-inducing comments prove that beneath his charming and decent surface he is ultimately just as out-of-touch and uninterested in the constituents as Steve – Van Der Sluijs’s most savage comment on the hot-housing of politicians and their successors.
It is significant that a new writing competition has been given an important online platform by a theatre company who have specialised in innovative filming and streaming techniques in the past two years – particularly as most other efforts to share content online have been quietly forgotten. Simply staged by Director Michael Boyd using a series of chairs and benches, Tikkun Olam does have a lot to say from the enclosed, issue-based dissent of local communities to identity formation, how selective history is memorialised and represented, the alignment of political campaigning with digital outlets and platforms, and how all of those issues meld together. At heart this is a play about the intersection between local and national politics, and the ways in which elected representatives both use and ride rough shod over constituents if they think they know better, and clearly it has a much long life ahead and probably in an expanded form where more of its arguments and characters can be fully developed. Whatever the outcomes of the Originals Playwrighting Award, and in addition to his Artistic Development work for the Young Vic, we can expect to see more from this first time playwright.
Tikkun Olam was performed at Riverside Studios and streamed online on 2 July as part of the Originals: Live at Riverside series. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.