Theatre is a weapon….

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The Ulster Kama Sutra, created by Andrea Montgomery and Nuala McKeever, are bringing a production to the stage which aims to challenge the dour conservative views prominent in the local media.

“It’s being billed as Thunderbirds meets The Vagina Monologues and its subject is rather delicate: the sex lives of the supposedly conservative, uptight, God-fearing people of Ulster.”

Initially the duo were keen to use actors (rather than puppets) but when pitching the production to venues they discovered that their work was deemed too controversial and too provocative – by using humans.

Therefore, cue the puppets. Interestingly, venues were happy to support the same production with the use of puppets. So, what does this mean – that puppetry is less subversive – less controversial – has less impact? It can offer distance that bodies on stage cannot? It’s a safe option.

Historically though, puppetry is a subversive form. Its political role began in revolutionary 17th Century England with popular figure of Punch, (of Punch & Judy fame) Famous for being a hero of the working class he broke sacrosanct laws – he mocked God, The King, the law and even Death. Consider also the Bread & Puppet theatre company, offering a powerful language to demonstrate against concerns of the day. During the Vietnam War, Bread and puppet staged block-long processions and pageants involving hundreds of people.

But what is perhaps more interesting is the need to mask controversial work. Hidden meanings. Secret messages. Innuendos.

Consider theatre practitioners, supported by the Federal Theatre Project in the 1930s, who aimed to create work which seemingly supported the government whilst offering another layer of hidden anti-establishment meaning.

It’s a shame that it’s still necessary today. Still, what it does prove is that theatre is a weapon,”too dangerous to be allowed in society” (Plato) as powerful now as it was in Ancient Greece. Consider  the production of The River and the Mountain, staged in Uganda, which tells the story of a young businessman coming to terms with being gay in a climate of homophobia. Not only was this production banned by the authorities but British producer, David Cecil, was even arrested in September last year and was facing two years in jail for staging the play, before being deported back to the UK.

I don’t often leave the theatre with the impetus to change my life, with the feeling that theatre is a weapon, a tool for change. Yet, it’s obviously powerful enough to provoke strong and angry responses. Belfast was one of the first cities in the UK, for instance, to try to ban the rock opera Jesus Christ…superstar! So it was banned. Prohibited. Censored.

It’s even powerful enough to force the Ugandan authorities to arrest and deport a British producer. So, hats off to Andrea Montgomery and Nuala McKeever for finding a way to stage their work, reach new audiences, and provoke a reaction!

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