More than 40 years since the debut of his British theatre classic, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, writer John Arden has lost none of his radicalism.

Words Steve Cramer

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British theatre. Four British soldiers return from a Victorian colonial war sickened by its violence against civilians. They arrive at the northern mining village of a fallen comrade. ostensibly for a recruitment drive. but their leader. the N(‘() of the title. has another. more peaceful mission in mind. (‘ut off by snow and in the middle of a strike. the villagers are not receptive to Musgrave‘s message. and more violence ensues. Now. if all that sounds like social realism. you're in for a surprise. for this play is an intense. poetic. deeply lyrical piece. a hard message sweetened by songs and quiet beauty. Arden himself has long since abandoned the British theatre. A committed radical and peace campaigner. he departed its stuffy conservatism in

the 7()s. going to live on the west coast of Ireland. It is clear that Arden had lost none of his radicalism. Asked about the not pleased in a way. because it looks as if no one has learned

He goes on to condemn the sordid business of invasion and occupation in its current form. 'The They talk about defence forces. but the British army hasn't been used to defend anything in years.

current production of Serjeant SOLVING anything since I wrote the play. It Americans are not doing a very good job of it‘s always aggressive. and used to oppress people.

sponsorship. the (I()l".l)£tll~) bat; struggled. lizivinri produced the likes; of .Jude l aw and John, l M: Miller in its past. ,ou'd Hunk that the (:onipany would have an assured ilOl'l/Oli, but such is the struggle in contemporary theatre that room: 3 safe. A more extentswe outreach oroieet iniqlit have helped. a5; the eoiiiiian, (lid suffer from the stzgina oi i)(:ill() a white. urban, iiiiddle <le 5‘»; organisation. and perhaps; if there's any chance of (:(intinuance. this; might be something to address. I v-xrsli them luck. At the moment. the; need it.

THE ANNOUNCEMENT THAT The New Statesman will no longer require a theatre critic is also depressing news. As a recognised organ of the left, or at least Ieftish-centre, it seems a strange time for the revered old rag to be letting go of such a correspondent. With theatre politicising rapidly, this seems a good time for the magazine to recapture some of its old authority. Left of centre critics are often pressurised by the right of centre newspaper industry; one could cite examples of such activity in Scotland, but it seems a strange time indeed for the left itself to be denying readers access to the world of the theatre. Think again, guys. The theatre is still the most attended live event in Britain every month, never mind your stadium rock.


John Arden: ‘No one has learned anything’

()kay. we were defending ourselves against Hitler in the 1940s. but we can‘t live on that forever. Whenever the army is iised. we're told were fighting Hitler again. They iised the same justification in Sue/ in “56. and Nasser wasn‘t Hitler. he was simply a politician who saw what was in the best interest of the ligyptian people.‘

The recent upsurge of bolitical theatre in Britain seems to make Arden‘s modern classic as relevant as it could ever be. and I ask him about the theatres earlier conservatism. ’I’m not terribly tip to date with British theatre these days. but even plays that they call pure entertainment are in fact political. They might encourage people to be complacent. or not to bother about politics. so they're political in a negative sense.‘ But can political theatre change the world‘.’ 'Well. I don't think a play can stop a war. but what it can do is point out things that need to be stopped. It can encourage people to think about things from a different point of view. You can‘t force people to think something. and I don‘t think political theatre that shouts too much at the audience is a good idea. But Serjeant .llusgmi'e doesn‘t do that.‘

.lluxgrui't' by the Oxford Stage Company. he says: ‘()n one level it's pleasing to see it done. but I’m


appals me that a military solution to a problem is still seen as an acceptable one. War is not an acceptable method of solving anything.‘ colonisation at the moment. liven the Victorians would have done better. and they made some terrible messes. And Britain is involved again.

Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Wed 29 Oct-Sat 1 Nov