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Trefor Clwyd reviews theatrical activity addressing issues of human rights.

Once upon a time, drama was about entertainment, much like bear-baiting and public hanging, but now it?s more about education and humanity. In some cases it?s about being politically correct enough to satisfy an arts council?s decrees, but overwhelmingly it?s about connecting and communicating across boundaries - often the boundaries that infringe our human rights. If you?ve never read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights it is a document well worth reading, in any language, at (http://www.unhchr.ch).

Universal impact

To focus on human rights issues we must address the universal without presupposing uniformity, and one group succeeding in this is Badac Theatre Company (http://www.badactheatre.com). Their name comes from the Polish ?to explore?, which is what they do through extensive research and improvisation. Billed as ?extreme political art? their productions are disturbingly violent, both emotionally and physically, although they usually substitute inanimate objects for human targets at moments of violence: a thundering metal sheet is beaten out of shape by a splintering baseball bat as a dissenting Jew crumples to the floor in Auschwitz; a hanging carcass of mutton represents a dripping human punch-bag as a battered wife bounces off the walls.

These productions invariably reduce their audiences to total silence throughout the performance and after. Badac don?t take curtain calls, arguing that to come out acknowledging any praise at the end of their plays would be offensive to the memory of those whose deaths they have just portrayed. And they are not wrong. This has a powerful impact upon their audiences who, unable to release any tension through applause, must examine their own consciences in order to come to terms with the material that Badac presents. For the last four years they have concentrated their output on the Holocaust, an inexhaustible subject whose lessons must never go unspoken, and they are currently refining their latest project, ?Cage? which explores domestic violence, for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2003. What makes their work special is that it isn't tailored for the cultured ?in-yer-face? drama aficionados of the Royal Court (although they would find great success there), but for touring to secondary schools across the country. If you have ever suspected that your local school was failing to teach your children the difference between right and wrong you should invite Badac to perform there immediately.

Releasing the pain

The New End Theatre will shortly be presenting an investigative drama that asks some difficult questions regarding women who have killed children. What should a civilised society do with them? Why is this crime perceived as being more heinous when committed by a woman than by a man? Why do we find child murder so hard to talk about, when it has been recurring since the time of Medea?

?And All The Children Cried? opened at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in April 2002 and transfers to the New End Theatre in Hampstead next week. Its authors are Beatrix Campbell, a journalist, and Judith Jones, a social worker; together they have 25 years? experience of these issues, and they argue that we are too frightened of this taboo to really examine the causes of these crimes, so we lock up the evidence instead. And what justice is there when a politician can overturn a parole board?s recommendation for release?

The play caused media ripples in Leeds because one character is based around Myra Hindley, and the Moors Murders are still too painful a subject for many. However, the authors, along with director Annie Castledine, have been making a number of changes for the London production in the wake of Hindley's death, making her character less shadowy and more of a controlling influence. Now that she is dead we can debate her case objectively without getting caught up in her notoriety. And this debate is an integral part of the performance: Act 2, even. Every night, following the interval, the audience engages in an open discussion of the topics raised. The producers have enlisted a broad range of experts to lead each debate, including politicians, academics, directors, playwrights, lawyers and psychologists; from Mo Mowlam and Helena Kennedy to Ian Brown and Paul Jepson. The production will document this cumulative debate and, through the input of such influential and eclectic speakers, advance our understanding of these painful rights and wrongs.

Artistic power

Theatre practitioners see themselves as having an artistic responsibility to engage an audience in these debates, regardless of their funding imperatives. Recently The Red Room?s production of ?The Bogus Woman? brought problems with our asylum system under closer scrutiny, while the Royal Court's ?Alive From Palestine? and David Hare?s ?Via Dolorosa? offered us viewpoints from both sides of the Israel issue. The current artistic responsibility, however, lies in a response to the ?war? against terrorism.

It seems hard to believe that not so many generations ago artists were instrumental in supporting wars, with songwriters, painters, sculptors and poets laureate all praising our military heroes or extolling the virtues of a soldier?s death. Obviously there has always been a voice of opposition (it used to be called satire), but there were undoubtedly two sides to the artistic debate. Now we are more aloof from our patriotism than ever, and cynical of spin doctors and their media propaganda. If there is a military hero in Britain today, no taxpayers? money will be spent commissioning his effigy. Indeed, I can hardly think of one Western artist in any artform (and please correct me if I?m wrong) whose work stands up for the war we may find ourselves waging.

Artists Against The War (http://www.ellipsis.com/aatw) is the loose collection of individuals presenting significant and thoughtful responses to the inhumanity of war, across the artforms. They aim to provide a counterweight against the pervasive media support for this war, resist censorship and disinformation, and oppose national chauvinism, racism and bigotry. Forthcoming events include contributing to a national demonstration mid-February, and a new play, ?Bites? by Kay Adshead, to be produced later this year. They are well aware that artists have as great a power to change hearts and minds about this war as politicians.

Challenging the state

Harold Pinter, the pinnacle of dissenting opinion, had yet another scathing article published last month denouncing the horrors of American imperialism. He accuses their administration of worse human rights atrocities than any Iraqi government and offers us his pithy observation of America?s current political rhetoric, saying ?Bombs are its only vocabulary,? but his incandescent outbursts are themselves too extremist to carry the weight they once did. Pinter?s greater contribution to human rights is his charitable use of his own celebrity, raising money through his last West End outing for Amnesty International. He?s hardly the first to do this: with decades of John Cleese?s ?The Secret Policeman?s Balls?, now replaced by Eddie Izzard?s ?We Know Where You Live? comedy shows, there has always been a strong cultural support for Amnesty. Indeed their lobbying reaps its rewards, with many prisoners of conscience being released thanks to their relentless campaigning, recently including the two Burmese comedians (?The Moustache Brothers?) incarcerated for five years for their jokes.

Nonetheless, I?m sure Amnesty is aghast at the fact that the ?war? against terrorism is ostensibly waving the same banners of freedom and justice, so occasionally it takes home-grown comedians to puncture any remaining bubbles of complacency in our government. Last month, while Michael Moore was railing against Bush at the Roundhouse in Camden, Mark Thomas was knocking on the door of a nuclear weapons factory in Berkshire. His group of twenty ?weapons inspectors? wanted assurance that the UK?s capacity for producing weapons of mass destruction doesn?t contravene the UN?s Non-Proliferation Treaty and that we aren?t breaking international law. Needless to say, they found no evidence to calm their fears.

Trefor Clwyd is a freelance arts administrator t: 07947 220 191
e: treforclwyd@clara.co.uk

To contact Artists Against The War
e: artistsagainstthewar@hotmail.com