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Letters from Cambridge:
The Hourglass Challenge
by Patrick Morris

Man with Mirrors by Guy Weese

"Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden
O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
...tis your thoughts
that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there, jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hourglass."


Shakespeare, Henry V, Act 1 Scene i


In England, as in the USA, we live with a questionable luxury which makes it possible to ignore politics - be it global warming or the increasingly frightening crisis in Israel and the West Bank, or even the day to day events in one's own community. However, it is these events and processes - seen and unseen - which shape our lives to such a great extent and which the theatre has an incredible ability to encompass. In fact, I would argue, it is the duty of the theatre to render them visible, to make connections between our private and public lives, to incorporate the wider world into the smallest of spaces, into the most private of stories. To be sure, the role of theatre in society has changed much in the 400 years since Shakespeare wrote Henry V. But if one looks at the work of Dario Fo, the Market Theatre of Johannesburg, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Tony Kushner, Caryl Churchill, to name but a few, we see excellent examples of political events and processes being brought to the stage in creative and engaging ways.

This coming July, Menagerie Theatre Company from Cambridge, a small city in the East of England famous for its university and little else, will host a festival of new writing for the theatre. We will commission plays from nationally recognized playwrights, run a 3 month workshop for local writers culminating in each contributing a 10 minute monologue to the festival, create a new play in 24 hours, present a work in progress of our own new piece, as well as countless other workshops, performances and forums all dedicated to new writing.

I look for playwrights whose characters' concerns go beyond the confines of a living room or their own love life. I look for plays that put characters within a social and political context, offering questions and viewpoints on pressing public issues. However, arguing the case for political writers does not mean they have to engage in agit-prop or be simplistic in either their content or style. If we take the example of one of the most popular, intelligent and remarkable pieces of theatre of the last decade, Tony Kushner's Angels in America, we have a case in point. On one level, it is a play about the impact of the AIDS crisis on certain real and fictional characters. On another level, it is about the fragility and betrayal of trust within an intimate relationship. On yet another, it is about Mormons, Roy Cohn and angels crashing through the roof at the moment of death. It is a massive piece of work which "crams within the wooden O" the moral and political forces which were at play in 1980's America in a humane, often hilarious and very moving fashion.

Such works only come along once in a while and I am not expecting all future plays to be its carbon copy. But it has become even more necessary in these bellicose times to support and nurture playwrights who are moved to comment on public issues or question the political status quo. As I write, the leaders of our countries, George Bush and Tony Blair, are meeting to discuss the planned attack on Iraq. Don't take me as being an arrogant Brit when I say that I have more confidence that Blair can be enticed away from this course than can Bush, though at the moment both seem intent on "action". Bush is still riding the post-9/11 popularity wave which leaves him relatively immune to criticism, while Blair is being heavily criticised for his unquestioning support of America, both from within his own party and in the media and is therefore not in as tenable a position.

These two leaders are discussing the possibility of a terrifying war in Iraq which could cost many thousands of lives. Are we reduced to being mere bystanders, bit players in the drama that is unfolding? I fear so. But I'm not calling for an immediate play about the current crisis. I merely state that the political and governing class need to know that we watch and make judgements on their actions and the theatre is one public arena where such activities take place. It is the arena in which we play out fantasies, rehearse dreams, and observe our world refracted and distilled through the playwright's pen.

With all this in mind, then, the plays that we bring to our festival in July must be large of mind, deep of vision, and engaging in spirit. They must be bursting at the seams with questions, ideas, hopes and fears. Ultimately, they must offer the uniqueness of the theatre experience which is to bring "the vasty fields of France" into one thousand square feet of stage.


Patrick Morris is Associate Director of Menagerie Theatre Company, Cambridge, England. He can be contacted at
patrick@menagerie.uk.com and the company website is www.menagerie.uk.com.



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West By Northwest



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