It may be the ‘tits and teeth’ school performances which first inspired my love for theatre; or that music has provided an evocative soundtrack through my life: I’m not sure, but whatever the reason I’m a true believer in the power of music. To move, uplift, transport, enrapture. To speak viscerally, make you smile, tap your foot, dance your heart out. To help you hear things differently. So of course, music has pretty much always been central to my theatre. Whether a well positioned pertinent pop song or a live string underscore, nearly everything I’ve directed has drawn heavily on music to enhance the theatre experience and support the meaning-making of the piece. But where does it sit in the armoury of tools that build theatre for social change?

Collective Encounters has commissioned new music for all our major productions, both participatory and professional. At the moment we have three major performance projects underway: a professional tragic opera responding to our work with the homeless community; a participatory & professional folk-song cycle tackling poverty and inequality; and a largely non-verbal youth theatre piece which draws heavily on an underpinning score. Sometimes its just one song in a show, but music always seems to be necessary. But why?

Many of my most formative theatre influences have positioned music at the heart of their theatre (7:84’s John McGrath, Joan Littlewood, Brecht, Piscator, Pit Prop…) And they would pretty much all argue that music helps you speak to diverse publics; that popular music in particular can reach out and engage people who might not ordinarily be interested in theatre. They’d say that it offers another plane of communication to support and extend the arguments of the piece. And, above all else, that it entertains. Agreed.

But there’s another side to the coin. Howard Barker famously said that the ‘authoritarian art form is the musical’: that musical theatre at its very heart maintains and reinforces the status quo. Easy to dismiss with ‘it depends on the musical, the context etc.’ But is it? Or is the very essence and nature of music-theatre the problem?

Last night I saw a new musical at Ireland’s National Theatre, The Abbey – it’s the first they’ve produced in 20 years. Alice in Funderland is billed as “an audacious and modern take on a classic tale. Featuring explosive tunes, razor sharp wit, a message of hope and a whole lot of fun”, and on the whole it delivers. Given the economic catastrophe, the shocking corruptions and scandals, and the frightening rate of repossessions and job losses in the country over the last few years, I totally agree that hope and fun are vitally important. And the show’s great. Great performances, gorgeous mise-en-scene, inventive, engaging and beautifully executed. And the extremely young audience (not normal for The Abbey) loved it. But it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. There was some powerful musical satire, lots of ‘cheeky’ political winks to the audience, and a couple of very striking numbers that got right to the heart of the rampant poverty and inequality that has enveloped the country. At one point a chorus of the disaffected sing:

Broke, tattooed and toothless
It’s no joke; these mean streets are ruthless
When there’s no hope, of ever getting through this
Put your head down, you just have to do this

It’s powerful and distressing to see an army of sleeping bag wearing junkies in a highly choreographed number. On the one hand I felt that it was very important to represent this growing and phenomenally marginalised group on stage, but at the same time it felt all wrong. It’s essentially ‘feel-good feel’ felt that we were laughing at the plight of these dispossessed and hopeless outcasts and the foot-tapping, synchronized head turning just felt all wrong in this context.

But my main problem was with the final number and the way it left us. We’d been taken on a journey through (as the programme note says) the ‘deluge of uncertainty that is modern life’. All the problems I mentioned earlier were raised and we were allowed to laugh at them as if the bankers, property developers and politicians who brought the country to its knees were just bumbling fools. And then, in the final number we were consoled with an intentionally heart-warming number: ‘There is no fear, just nonsense’. Talk about placate! Both words and melody were aimed to sooth. Its basic premise was: we know things are shit and you’re scared, broke and unhappy, but at least you’re alive so don’t worry about it; and you’ve had a good old laugh tonight so you can go home with a glow in your heart. This hope is empty. It did exactly what Barker warned about: reaffirmed the myth that ‘this is how it is, there’s nothing we can do about it, no alternative, lets just make the best of a bad lot.’

So how do we get the balance between entertaining and provoking? How do we use music within theatre to help us speak in different ways, communicate on a different level, whilst simultaneously engaging and inciting an audience? To return to Howard Barker (not someone I ever thought I’d return to, having rejected him as a theatrical elitist the first time around!) – he reminds us not to confuse hope with comfort. That in times like these discomfort is what is required: I guess Brecht and Weill found the most familiar music-theatre way of doing this with their discordant harmonies and biting lyrics. I don’t want our theatre to make people miserable – unlike Barker I really don’t want to cause an audience pain – I want our shows to be wonderful, engaging, powerful, entertaining. I don’t want to hit people over the head but equally I don’t want to console, condone and commiserate. Like Brecht and many, many theatre makers before me, I want to make theatre and performance events that are a call to action: have a great time but leave wanting to change things. So how can music contribute to that agitational injection?

It’s very interesting at the moment to be exploring this through two such contrasting forms (opera and folk) – which will be most powerful? How will each form work and affect an audience differently? Will we be able to entertain and provoke? Have a listen to existing arias from Songs for Silenced Voices (2010), some of our new songs for In Our Times (2012) or some older ones from Smoke and Mirrors (2008) and see what you think…

If anyone has thoughts or words of wisdom, I’d appreciate them!

I’ll keep you posted on how things develop…