Since working on subVERSE, my subsequent practice has continued to be as a political agitator, but rather than ‘preaching to the choir’ as subVERSE often used to do, I have begun to be less didactic and less of a propagandist, but realize that people are where they are and getting them to change their behaviour is often very difficult. So, I focus on my own behaviour – ‘What can I do differently?’ which has led me to work in Theatre for Development. As a theatre director, I continue to produce political theatre but with the knowledge that audiences have a wide variety of experiences and that I need to account for these. Because, if not, they will just turn your production off and not listen at all.
A brief background to subVERSE:
In September 2004, Adrian Page & I discussed a shared vision of putting together an evening of high quality and artistic political & socially-conscious theatre. We contacted other likeminded artists and political activists and began to get submissions from playwrights along with commitments from actors and directors to participate in this evening. In November 2004, subVERSE was presented as an evening of short pieces with a political agenda and as a way of raising the profile of a selected charity at the World’s End Theatre in Chelsea, London. It was seen by a member of the Theatre503 artistic staff and was picked up as a regular event at that theatre. This became the blueprint of short pieces of new theatre ripped from the headlines for each successive monthly event: the highest quality theatre with a ‘subVERSEive’ bend and a chance for both the artists & audience to become aware of and participate in an area charity. Each month, the programme of subVERSE was different, evolving and updating according to the artists’ responses to current events around the world.
Along with presenting theatre, subVERSE believed in more than just ‘raging against the machine’ within the four walls of a theatre. To this end, we facilitated a series of forums that follows the performances in which a selected charity speaks about them and then opens up to the audience for questions. For example, in March 2005, we hosted the Stop The War Coalition with STW steering committee member Chris Nineham and George Solomou, a former TA soldier and member of Military Families Against the War, who refused to serve in Iraq. In May 2005, we hosted the London Detainee Support Group, a non-political and non-religious charity that supports asylum-seekers and others detained in the London area. Throughout subVERSE’s life, it continued to reach out to other charities that were interested in this sort of profile-raising event and always continued to try to be aware of global events that affect our lives and how we, in a very small way, could help affect change in this world.
subVERSE was a unique blend of political satire, comedy and drama from new British and American writers to audiences in London and Edinburgh.
In August 2005, we successfully transferred the show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for 24 performances, with a combination of the best of our previous pieces. Audiences began to expect some of the best fresh new political writing, which made them laugh out loud, listen, and think about the current geo-political climate and New World Order. Satire was never been so apt, angry, funny and moving.
subVERSE was successfully producing performances that entertain, rather than soapbox, and was critically referred to as ‘hip, dark, engaging, and stylish’. The key to this success is an approach that blends both drama and comedy, together with the ability to inform with a political conscious. Michael Billington argued that for new writing to thrive, a theatre must be in place solely dedicated to that end, and subVERSE, together with Theatre 503, were successfully fulfilling these criteria — premiering over 300 pieces of new writing by eighteen playwrights and poets over a three year period, in addition to establishing a talented core of actors and directors. Although theatre itself is unable to solve today’s global conflicts, subVERSE was answering Ian Shuttleworth’s call: ‘Let us question. Let us talk. Let us see other ways’. We were proud at subVERSE to encourage and support the emerging voices.
© Matthew Hahn 2020