As a theatre maker, I say that I want to change the world with theatre. It’s obviously an unreasonable desire for many reasons. Not least because theatre requires people to sit and pay attention, a form of passivity, and to change the world we need people to be active and to challenge authority. It’s a paradoxical desire, essentially, like when we want to leave a party when somebody we fancy enters the room.
I spoke to Richard Boyd Barrett TD for Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown of Anti-Austerity Alliance–People Before Profit and chair of the Irish Anti-War Movement about this as I feel left wing politicians deal with paradoxes all the time. For instance, they want us to fight injustice but they want us to do this peacefully without us physically interfering with the government mechanisms carrying out the injustice.
Richard Boyd Barrett said he decided to enter politics after working as a labourer in Israel back in 1987. He was 20 years old at that time, and when the Intifada broke out that year, his fellow Palestinian labourers sneaked him across the borders into their homes in the West Bank. “I saw people being gunned down. I saw really brutal military force being used by the Israelis against unarmed Palestinian teenagers. I went to refugee camps where my friends were living. Which was near Hebron. And it was really shocking. And they told me the whole story of how their family had been displaced in 1948. Ethnically cleansed and have been living in this camp ever since. You couldn’t help but see the injustice that was being committed upon them. And my conscience wouldn’t allow me to let it go, you know.” When he got back to Ireland he had to act and this eventually led to his involvement in socialist politics.
I asked him what was the message that he wanted to communicate with his politics but he refuted the question. He said he was drawn in because of the issues. He wanted to fight injustice and that led to him becoming political. It was obvious to me that he wanted to be clear about the difference between words and action. But then, every politician says the same, in their own words. Enda Kenny says he wants to make a difference in real people’s lives too.
I explain to him my concern about politics using the example of the anti-war movement before the invasion of Iraq. These protests were more or less non-violent. Intentionally non-violent. Lots of people stood around and shouted and chanted and some people made some speeches. From a purely practical point of view, you see, this makes no sense. How can the movement of lips and vocal chords, tiny pieces of human flesh, stop the movement of a million tonnes of US war-machinery?
And of course, as it turns out, even though this was the largest anti-war protest ever in the western world, it made no difference. A million squealing lips were given lip service and the war took place anyway.
“Obviously with certain issues there is more at stake for the establishment, and there are lines for them where they are going to dig in and fight on. And the Iraq War was one of those. But I think it would be wrong to conclude, although I think a lot of people did conclude, that that meant the movement had no impact. I think the movement had a huge impact. I mean, I think had that movement not been as big as it was, I think they would have attacked Iran, fairly shortly after the Iraq War.”
This is speculation of course. But Richard is convinced of the effectiveness of people power.
I suggest that there is maybe an overlap between people power and theatre. He agrees. He’s thought a lot about it he says since discovering in 2007 that his biological mother was the famous actress Sinéad Cusack.
“Good politics and good acting are very similar. And bad politics and bad acting are very similar. Because good politics and good acting are about getting the truth across. And bad acting and bad politics are about pretending.” (Maybe that explains my own unsuccessful acting career then, I think.)
“She [Sinéad] is always keen to point out that every single performance of a play is different for her. And what makes it different is the dynamic with the audience. I mean, you would think that a silent audience just sitting there listening isn’t contributing to what’s happening but she is at pains to say it is. It very much is.”
Most actors would agree with her. A silent audience has an effect but I have never heard it explained how this effect operates. It might as well be magic when one thinks about it.
“The times I like best in the Dáil are when the gallery is full of ordinary people. And it isn’t as full as often as it should be actually. I’d like to see the public come in there more. But I certainly get a far realer feeling when the gallery is full. And often when we are trying to raise particular issues, we make a point of bringing lots of people in. When I talked about homelessness, on a number of occasions, I brought homeless people into the Dáil. And I think that gives a much more real feel to what’s happening. And it actually makes the government sit up as well when they see people staring down at them.”
It’s easy to see how this would be intimidating for the politicians. It’s like when you encounter a group of young fellows on the street. And they go quiet and just watch you as you walk past. They are a silent audience. Nothing is happening but it’s a menacing kind of silence. Politicians, I speculate, are afraid of the same thing actors are. A response.
“Since getting into the Dáil, and actually seeing the establishment right there, up close, I can see how conscious they are of the people outside. And, frankly, how afraid they are of the people outside. The more the government feel that the public is engaged and watching what they are doing the more they are under pressure. And it does bring, you know, it produces effects.”
The Dáil, when you look at it, could be another mid-sized city theatre. Inclined seats, a stage and people acting out arguments and debating decisions. And according to Richard Boyd Barrett, it would seem, the more it operates like a theatre the more effective it could be.
So then how does one go about performing within it? For instance, actors like to have motivation I say, in order to bring the right energy to the stage. How does he get the right performance energy?
“Just constantly hearing the stories of people. You know, you can verse yourself, in a very dry way, on legislation or on particular issues. But if you don’t fully see how it interacts with human beings, you don’t fully appreciate it.”
Do you do vocal warm-ups?
“No. I don’t do vocal warm-ups. Or practice runs or anything like that. No. [laughs]”
When have your speeches gone badly?
“When you’re not really confident of the material. If you don’t really feel and know the actual issue, then what you say is much more stumbling and much more wooden and you know it yourself. I know when I stand up if it’s going to be a bad speech.”
A lot of actors say the same thing I tell him. They say they know when the performance starts if it’s going to go badly. What do you do when that happens?
“Well. You do your best.”
And do you draw on your literature degree for instance? The use of language, rhetoric, rhythm, clear expression and so on. These things matter I imagine.
“Yeah, they really do, Dick. They really do. But not in a contrived way. I think when you are speaking with genuine knowledge and conviction about something, I think things almost produce their own rhythm. You know what I mean? They fit together. Because you really understand them and feel something about them. So I think they produce their own shape. But when you’re not really on top of the material, they’re clunky, you know? Or incomprehensible.”
“It’s very obvious to me that Enda has been tutored in body language. In the use of his hands and stuff. And it comes across as very wooden. You can just imagine the political spin-doctors and the party focus groups in a room saying this is how Blair got elected so we just have to copy it in a formulaic way. And similarly with Obama. We just have to copy it in a formulaic way. Of course it then becomes deeply inauthentic and just becomes another formula for essentially fooling people.”
“I’m not saying that everyone is like this. There are some people on the government side who do, even though I don’t agree with them, who do speak with conviction. But I think there is a very, very widespread culture of… contrivance… and spin and sort of… formula… and pretence.”
“As there is in theatre” I say. He had basically more or less described my own approach to acting. Contrivance, formula and pretence.
“Absolutely.” he says, “There is a very strong overlap.”
I would love to be able to write a script that would recreate Richard Boyd Barrett in the theatre. But even Richard Boyd Barrett couldn’t recreate himself if he had to be scripted. It has to be spontaneous every time he says, and I would agree. And so I continue my own work in theatre, trying to approximate reality using formula, contrivance and pretence.
The worrying thing is that actually many politicians are engaged in the same project as me. And it’s a project that succeeds for them often. Enda is a bad actor, but he’s in charge. Obama is a good actor. Hillary is not nearly as good but I hope she succeeds, and Trump is probably the best actor of them all. These are interesting times right now, and as an actor I think it would be wise to look on and see what happens.
Words: Dick Walsh