Photo: Jacob King/PA
‘What makes me get up in the morning and write is what makes me angry, upset and scared,’ says playwright Emily White. Like her previous plays, White’s next production, Joseph K and the Cost of Living, opening at the Swansea Grand next month, seeks to make the personal political. It is a reimagining of Kafka’s nightmare The Trial, whose main character is caught unexpectedly but is never told what for and always maintains his innocence.
White was a teenager when she first read the novel, about “getting caught up in this kind of bureaucratic machine”, but returned to it recently when she felt a “terrible authoritarianism” was happening, and rights marginalized people are being “cut back. by governments around the world”. She continues: “In my version, it’s a story about the state’s persecution of certain people and the reasons for that. And, in the background, we are very much in Britain today, in this world we live in now.” The play, she says, is set in a country that feels itself teetering on the brink of resistance and revolution. Thus, the story includes food banks, homelessness, environmental protests, strikes and the government’s attempt to limit direct action.
Still, White says she wants to make sure her dramas are fun, too, and hopes this one will inspire those who watch it. “A theatrical production can’t change the world, but I think it might make people think about something differently… When bankers get £500,000 bonuses, while nurses have to use food banks to feed their families feed, something is wrong. “
The theater industry is also facing the impact of a bleak economic reality, with the cost of living crisis and the hangover from the pandemic. Last month, Oldham Coliseum announced that all its performances had been canceled from the end of March, due to its Arts Council England (ACE) funding being cut completely. Extremely low wages have prompted the Equity union to launch a campaign demanding a 17% weekly pay rise for performers and stage managers working in the West End.
“People are leaving the industry, to be completely honest,” says White. “There’s a huge segment of people who don’t come from rich backgrounds and can’t continue to do so. Which is very sad.” She is concerned about the impact of funding cuts on the type of work that is carried out. “There is a risk that the theater will become just a museum piece – not current and not engaging with what is going on in the world right now, and that is very important so that it does not become obsolete.”
White’s play, staged as part of a three-part project by National Theater Wales, is among a series of works examining the harsh effects of the cost of living crisis. These include Travis Alabanza and Debbie Hannan’s Sound of the Underground, at the Royal Court in London, which examines the precarious pay for drag performers, and Northern Stage’s adaptation of the film I, Daniel Blake, which opens in May.
At Colchester’s Mercury theater from March are They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay!, Deborah McAndrew’s adaptation of the 1974 Italian farce by Dario Fo and Franca Rame. The original showed a supermarket being spiced up as a protest against the economic crisis. What can we expect from McAndrew’s version? “A kind of scattergun, state of the nation moment,” she says, envisioning an “anarchic evening with a moment or two of reflection and real rage”. In the mix for the final script are gags about Matt Hancock and a possible piece on Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs. “It gets more and more surreal,” says McAndrew. “It’s all a big meta-story. A lot of quarter walls have been broken.” It will be difficult, too, including an investigation into police corruption.
McAndrew’s own theater company, Claybody, in Stoke-on-Trent, was among those who received a boost in ACE funding, but she knows about the bigger picture. She hears from friends who work in the West End that “there are big problems just because people can’t afford to go”, and she cites the pandemic as a factor behind the shortage of backstage staff. “There is a particular crisis in stage management. They work sometimes very hard … I think the pandemic affected people and it did [them] rethink their lives.”
But she remains optimistic about better days to come. “As a theatregoer, I believe there is nothing like a shared experience in a room with actors right in front of you doing that thing, and acting out that story for you as an audience – the unique dynamic of each show,” she says. “I don’t believe that will ever go away, and that people won’t want it.”