I shouldn’t really be reviewing this secretive New Diorama production. Nina Segal’s War and Culture has no press night (we’re not invited), has a 9:45pm start time and is billed as a play about government intervention in arts funding and cultural organisations. It’s understandable why such a bleak, sinister satire would be so limited in its marketing, but it ridiculously undersells a production many people should know about and see, though likely won’t.
It opens with a play’s closing – a post-show discussion helmed by a theatre’s eccentric, almost Shakespearean artistic director (Ferdy Roberts); the play’s Turkish director Alexander (Peter Clements); and an intern (EM Williams) who is roped in to contribute at the last minute. Having not seen the show due to taking a call from mysterious ‘funders’, the artistic director fawns over the “radical” production (he says that a lot), which the actual director reveals is more of a modern tale of how we live today, where a woman is destroyed and violence with a brick is enacted. Good lord. Though arguably the most “radical” thing comes when Alexander brands the UK Govermment “war criminals” amid a discussion about arts funding, and a PR crisis for the theatre ensues.
The show’s freesheet sarcastically claims the characters bear no relevance to real life scenarios or people, but it’s plainly obvious that Segal wants to highlight just how beholden arts organisations are to the government by way of Arts Council funding. It’s seemingly backed by details secured through freedom of information requests submitted last year too, and just four months ago former culture secretary Nadine Dorries MP claimed an ACE funding cut to the English National Opera was “politically motivated”, so it’s not a completely outlandish belief to hold.
It’s the main – and arguably, only – message conveyed in this production, but there’s nothing wrong with an idea being so concentrated, especially when it’s powerfully expressed. An engrossingly ominous piece of metatheatre, reality bleeds into theatre and vice versa when what was previously fictional in the play within the play becomes real in the main play (make sense?) One offshoot of this central argument seems to be that the government – by exacting pressure via ACE – can use theatres as a testing ground for culture wars and discourse, as another public arena. It’s then far easier for ministerial departments to make them take the fall if things go wrong, as the pandemic has shown that the government is all too happy with letting cultural institutions die out.
Amusing in its self-aware comedy about an extreme situation, a particularly clever contrast pulled off by director Jess Edwards comes with two performances from Clements. At the beginning of the play, to audience laughter, Alexander unenthusiastically dismantles a turn of phrase (‘mind-blowing’, to be exact), but a government minister doing so at the end after so much chaos does not illicit the same response. Bethany Gupwell’s lighting design on concentric circle-like beams is suitably intense, and there isn’t even a proper curtain call – due to reasons I won’t reveal here so as to avoid spoilers. War and Culture is a dark and gloomy commentary (in a good way) and a demand to keep art unrestricted and unflinching – it’s just a shame the show’s marketing doesn’t encapsulate that same spirit.
War and Culture is now playing at the New Diorama Theatre until 12 May 2023.
Captioned, relaxed and babes-in-arms performances are scheduled for 3, 4 and 5 May respectively.
Production Images: Cesare De Giglio.