How Tron Theatre's Mayfesto is more politics than nostalgia
Andy Arnold was on the bus when it came to him. That clever use of the letter ‘o’ could buy him two things at once: remind people of a late lamented Glasgow theatre festival, and inject a political edge to the new event he had planned. And so, Mayfesto was born.
Two weeks of quality playwriting, both old and new, Mayfesto starts 24 hours after Britain goes to the polls. Which, at first glance, seems like perfect timing. But as Arnold says, his new baby is not so much a political animal as a people person. ‘None of the plays are didactic flag-waving pieces,’ he explains. ‘They’re all human stories looking at the casualties of world events or war – and because they’re set in extremely tense environments, drama comes out of that.’
Those stories couldn’t be more diverse. Iraqi translators let down by the American government, a hill-walking Palestinian unable to roam freely, a German Jew during World War II and a Scottish mother coping with her daughter’s civil partnership, to name but a few. Some performed by the Tron Theatre Company, others brought in for the occasion, but according to Arnold all the plays in Mayfesto have one thing in common.
‘They’re all beautifully written,’ he says. ‘Because for me, the text has always been the most fundamental element of theatre. Sometimes you require a more theatrical staging, and sometimes you just want to let the people speak. All these pieces are very much individual stories and very gripping as well.’
Arnold himself will be directing Address Unknown, a two-hander based on the postal correspondence of two old friends – one living in America, the other in Germany. ‘It’s a very clever piece because it seems so gentle,’ says Arnold. ‘As the letters go back and forth, one of the old pals is totally enthused by Hitler as he comes to power. But the other guy in America is Jewish and when his sister goes to Germany, she’s very badly let down by the friend so there’s a revenge element. It’s an extraordinary story, almost like a thriller.’
Mayfesto’s centrepiece is Betrayed, written by US journalist George Packer. Based on interviews Packer wrote for an article in the New Yorker, the play focuses on three young Iraqis who find themselves abandoned by America when they’re no longer useful. As with all the works in the festival, however, the finger of blame isn’t pointed in any one direction. ‘The Americans in Betrayed are all sympathetic characters,’ says Arnold. ‘And it’s not in any way judgemental, nor does it make a comment on that political situation.’
The need for sensitivity was also paramount in From the West Bank, a series of three short works exploring the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Playwright David Grieg provides two of the pieces, Ramallah and An Imagined Sarha, which will be performed alongside Franca Rame’s poignant monologue, An Arab Woman Speaks. How did Grieg go about handling such an emotionally charged subject matter?
‘To some extent I was guided by the material,’ he says. ‘An Imagined Sarha is adapted from a book of memoirs by Raja Shehadeh, a Palestinian lawyer who loves hill walking. But the situation in the occupied territories means he’s unable to walk in the hills his grandfather did, and he writes about his experience of that. So I’ve just tried to be as true to him as I possibly could, and he’s a sensitive writer.’
In keeping with Arnold’s philosophy that Mayfesto should be about the personal, rather than the political, Grieg’s other work Ramallah will speak to anyone who has ever travelled away from home – and come back again. ‘I wrote the piece after a number of trips to Palestine working with young playwrights,’ explains Grieg. ‘And essentially it’s about a man coming home to Britain after visiting Palestine, and the ensuing encounter between him and his wife. It tries to capture the awkwardness of return, because the people at home have carried on and are sort of grounded, while you’re kind of still in the air.’
In that way, Grieg speaks to all of us, not just those with a personal interest in Middle Eastern politics. ‘I’m participating in this event because I want to explore the experience of Palestinians over the last ten years or so,’ he says. ‘And to reflect some of my experiences in the Arab world – so in that sense they are political – but they’re not propaganda or proselytising, and it would be awful if they were. In both of these plays I’m trying to tell the truth of an experience, and hopefully that’s why they can communicate to an audience who may or may not be interested in politics, but can at least empathise with a man who likes hill walking and a couple faced with the awkwardness of return.’
While most of us can find a point of reference in Grieg’s works, it’s to be hoped that few if any audience members will truly empathise with the characters in Drumhead. During this new off-site play by Glasgow-based company Rhymes With Purple, audiences will be taken by coach to a secret location and witness the ‘Enhanced Interrogation Methods’ used in countries where torture is deemed illegal. As company member Frodo McDaniel explains, researching the play wasn’t easy.
‘Amnesty International pointed us in the right direction and we did a lot of reading, which was really quite disturbing,’ he recalls. ‘But although the play is hard-hitting, it’s nowhere near as traumatic and horrible as the reality of what I discovered in the research.’ It’s billed as an ‘interactive’ piece, but audiences can rest assured nobody will be black-bagged or waterboarded during the show – although observing these disturbing legal procedures may prove almost as harrowing for some.
‘The actor representing the authorities will speak directly to the audience, and ask them rhetorical questions,’ says McDaniel. ‘And should anyone feel moved enough to say something or question what he’s doing there’s an element of almost scripted improvisation to the play to allow for that. But we’re not going out of our way to make people feel uncomfortable – we’re letting the subject matter do that.’
Mayfesto, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, Fri 7–Sat 22 May.