Human rights -- scarcely touched on in the theatre?

Claire O'Kell, 5 October 2012

Claire O'Kell called the session.
Mark Pollock, Tobias Cunliffe, Dave Coggins, Chloe Davies and Gordon Steff attended the session.

While we should all “own” human rights, and ensure that they stay on the agenda, theatre is perhaps too personal and subjective to take on the huge concepts involved in human rights issues.

It was agreed that there's a serious risk of theatre groups over-interpreting and over-intellectualising human rights abuses as experienced and reported by individuals, all of whom are of course extremely vulnerable and at risk of further exploitation.

One member of the group mentioned his experience of community theatre, in which audiences generally unfamiliar with theatre are “presented” with a dramatic work and are sometimes left bewildered – those involved in the production may be seen to behave in an arrogant and patronising way.

'What is it for?' is a question that sometimes comes to mind when a work that deals with distressing events and monstrous behaviour is performed in the theatre. The intentions of the writer and producer should perhaps come under question. Also, is putting on such productions worthwhile? It's often felt that such plays are “preaching to the converted”.

It was agreed that many works by Shakespeare relate to human rights abuses, and lend themselves to productions that highlight such issues. A recent RSC production of Julius Caesar that was performed by a black African cast at the Lowry could be seen to relate to human rights violations in countries such as the DRC and Somalia, while child soldiers featured in a production of Macbeth at the Royal Exchange 4 years ago.

Some of our best-known playwrights – Brecht in particular, but others have also had a huge impact – have dealt with human rights issues in an inspired and lasting way.

It was mentioned that Amnesty International hold regular playwriting competitions; as one would expect, these receive many powerful entries.

The question of whether a theatre group is likely to “trust” its audiences (who may not have any background knowledge of the abuses dealt with in a play, or understand the issues involved), was briefly discussed. Clearly, once again there's a risk of condescension on the part of those who have created the production.

There are obviously many possibilities for disastrous productions: ones in which situations involving human rights abuses are hopelessly misrepresented and/or misunderstood by a dramatist, producer or cast.

Many actors past and present have spent much of their career out of work, and the current practice of hiring unpaid interns in the theatre (although more widespread in the film industry) causes concern, since this equates to slavery. Perhaps abuses of this kind need to be addressed by playwrights.

The question ‘Is there room for human rights in mainstream theatre?’ (or ‘Can human rights theatre fit into the mainstream?’) is one that we should all consider.


condescension, human rights, vulnerability, activism, vulnerable