State of Play - David Edgar and Testing the Echo
Steve Cramer talks to one of the UK’s foremost political dramatists, David Edgar, about ideology, identity and nationhood
It might tell us something about the current preoccupations of the theatre in Scotland that, following a long period in which his plays were seldom performed here, revivals of David Edgar’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Nicholas Nickleby have both toured north of the border over the last couple of years. One of the UK’s pre-eminent political playwrights, Edgar’s work of the 70s and 80s such as Destiny, and Maydays scrutinised the right and left respectively. His back catalogue is notable for its passionately eloquent and often witty dissections of the State of the Nation from a left-wing point of view.
The premiere of Edgar’s new play, Testing the Echo, with Max Strafford Clark’s Out of Joint theatre, here directed by Matthew Dunster, is the playwright’s first major work since his much acclaimed 2005 attack on Blairism, Playing with Fire. The new work develops Edgar’s forensic examination of the British state to the idea of Britishness itself. Here, we meet Emma, an English teacher in a ‘citizenship’ class, whose ideas about nationhood – already an issue of dubious integrity to the character – are further tested by the expectations of her students.
‘There’s undoubtedly a phenomenon in these kinds of institutions that the people teaching in them are often more critical of the information that they teach than many people in broader society, and more critical than their students,’ says Edgar. ‘It’s not about people learning English, it’s about people teaching it. It’s about us and how we define ourselves.’
Yet, such people might, he explains, be the exception rather than the rule. ‘I think some British people are closer in that airbrushed, kind of golden summer view of England to the 1950s than they are to the present day.’
Edgar engaged with some major research in producing the piece, speaking with many people who were students of these schools. So, there’s an element of fact-based drama in his aesthetic. ‘I wanted to write a play that combined documentary elements with fictional stories, using such things as the verbatim theatre we’ve seen over the last few years with a kind of mockumentary approach. It uses that language, in the way that The Office does, which is a new departure for me.’
Changing times have, for Edgar, brought different approaches to politics. Asked about the young 90s generation of writers, who were often accused of being apolitical in their approach to the culture, his thinking shows a remarkable historical sensitivity. ‘I think some of that Brat pack of writers, people like Ravenhill and Kane are political writers. In a way, Mark Ravenhill’s great subject is a kind of eulogy for the past, and past political purpose. I think what happened in the 80s was that politics gave many, many things away because Mrs Thatcher was such a strong figure. At the beginning of that decade many things – phones, gas, utilities – were in government hands, so by the time these writers came to prominence there was much less emphasis on the power of politics.’
He adds: ‘I think since 2001 there’s been a reawakening about the importance of politics. Certainly since then there’s been less emphasis on economic determinism, and more on bigger issues.’ Issues don’t come much bigger than how nations define themselves, whether here or in England, so this might just be one of the most important plays of the year.