This article was originally printed in the Guardian Theatre Blog on 3/12/09

Next week, iceandfire theatre company launch Everyone Has the Right, a call for new plays about human rights, in partnership with Amnesty International. As their patron I should declare an interest, but nonetheless the scheme raises valuable questions about how or why politicised theatre on civil liberties should be dramatised. After all, the universal declaration of human rights, our secular 10 commandments, is a body of abstract principles – and abstract principles surely make bad plays?

From a dramatist’s point of view oppression is, while very real and very challenging, predictable and unrelieved; there’s little room for comic relief or redemption in the torture taking place right now in some jail in Upper Egypt, the fate of a journalist shot in the head on a Moscow stairwell, or the dead at a wedding party in Afghanistan. For playwrights, there is little opportunity for wit, irony and playfulness but plenty more to create something clunkily worthy and didactic. Using drama to raise awareness or to inspire social change can only really work if playwrights deliver their polemic through a well-crafted story.

So which plays offer useful precedents? An obvious place to start is with Harold Pinter, who explicitly engaged with human rights abuses in short, sharp shockers such as One for the Road and Mountain Language. But hands-on oppression tends to result in scenes that are a one-way street. Nicolas, the torturer in One for the Road, for example, is granted ample and leisurely space to practise his whimsical rants in front of his largely silent victims without much recourse. Mountain Language too, only comes alive in the nasty bawdy interplay between the Officer and the Sergeant.

But such snapshots make the audience mere witnesses to despair rather than allowing them to become morally implicated in the action. Instead, I’d recommend entrants to the scheme to look at two plays from two morally murky contexts of oppression: 1970s Northern Ireland and South Africa under apartheid.

Brian Friel’s rarely revived play The Freedom of the City from 1973 takes an ironic, angry look at the fate of three civil rights marchers in Derry, caught up in an accidental occupation of the city hall; its characters are wayward and complex, their motives confused, but their shared state of oppression is never in question. On paper they are victims, after all, but equally they are cast as terrorists. Their ironic tenure in the townhall, is set against the obtuse comments of a whitewash public tribunal into their deaths. In short, while always political, Friel keeps the audience in the frame.

Likewise, Athol Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act from 1972, refuses to turn oppression into a spectator sport. At is centre is the relationship between a white female librarian and a “coloured” man, which founders as they internalise the oppression they inhabit. As in Amnesty’s work, individuals are indissolubly at the centre; but what makes Fugard’s play troubling long after the law it tilted at is revoked, is its understanding of how power gets beneath the skin.

For me, great plays, whether about human rights or not, ask disquietingly difficult moral questions. After all, civil liberties are not only something we fear to lose, they are also imperilled daily by the economic and military actions of “our” regimes. Telling stories that weigh their worth and count the cost of their loss is what good theatre always does.

By Steve Waters, Playwright and iceandfire Patron

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