“Every single value we claim to profess is wrapped up in this issue,” says the playwright Steve Waters. “And every single hypocrisy that we affect, too.”
That issue is education. Always a subject that attracts fevered debate, in Britain the row about university funding spilled on to the streets late last year. Whatever your views, it’s an issue that draws together principles, politics and personal experience in a combustible mix.
Undeterred, or perhaps inspired, by the scale of the subject, the Bush Theatre in west London starts the spring term by plunging headlong into the debate. Its “Schools Season”, which opened on Wednesday, offers two plays and a raft of discussions on education in Britain. The Bush, though small in capacity, tends to think big: one of its greatest recent successes was a double bill of plays on climate change. But what can theatre bring to an issue at once so vast and so personal?
Josie Rourke, artistic director of the Bush, argues that drama encourages a different mode of debate because it depends on empathy.
“It’s done across a very humane canvas,” she says. “It’s not dry, it’s not esoteric. It’s more personal: you see individuals make those choices up close, particularly in the Bush. Who says large ideas belong on big stages? Sometimes the key to unlocking huge issues in the theatre are moments of impeccable intimacy.”
Having written one of the Bush school plays, Little Platoons, Waters suggests that drama can “take some of the toxins” out of the arguments.
“As a former teacher, I’m constantly angry at the way education is represented and talked about, which is often reductive or sentimental,” he says. “As an issue it is experienced in a really fractured, personal and vituperative fashion. I think the play’s role is to watch a set of characters have those fights for us.
“There are things I say in this play that I can’t say to my neighbours but that I think need voicing,” he adds. Little Platoons focuses on a hotly disputed strand of education policy: the coalition government’s “free schools” initiative, allowing parents or other interested parties to set up schools. The play follows a group of parents embarking on this path. Waters points out that the topic opens up bigger questions about the choices people make and the pressures on those choices.
“In thinking about their child’s future, parents act out their own educational narrative. The play is less about education and more about confusion,” he says. “It’s partly a midlife crisis play. As you hit mid-40s, the feeling becomes very strong that the things you signed up to when you were 18 are now under huge amounts of pressure.”
Although Waters does not support the idea of free schools, he is adamant that the play is not an attack on the policy or the government – rather it is a state-of-the-nation piece, one that asks searching questions.
Waters’ play is, in a sense, complemented by the other play in the season, The Knowledge, by John Donnelly. Like Waters, Donnelly hopes to probe beneath the arguments about grades and standards to ask what we want from education.
“That’s why the play is called The Knowledge,” he says. “It asks, ‘What is school actually for?’ Are there five things that if you teach people they’ll be OK? And can you actually teach people those things?”
Donnelly’s play offers a graphic depiction of the sort of school that the parents in Little Platoons are desperate to avoid. It shows a young teacher struggling to control a class of 15-year-olds seething with hormones and attitude. Several scenes, including one in which the teacher attempts a sex education class using a blue prosthetic phallus, will make the audience squirm. But Donnelly, who has worked in many schools, insists his play is not intended to shock or to confirm received ideas about out-of-control students.
“I was really keen not to sensationalise poor behaviour. There’s a very easy route to something voyeuristic by having knives and hoodies and guns on stage. The vast majority of young people aren’t like that. But I would like an audience to come out with a clearer sense of all the characters’ perspectives – particularly those they have least sympathy for at the beginning.”
These plays may both be startlingly topical, but they join an honourable roll call of dramas about school. And school plays often score top grades – from Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version to more recent hits such as Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock and David Eldridge’s Under the Blue Sky. For dramatists, schools offer a fertile mix of idealism and cynicism, hope and despair, youth and age, all bundled together in a closed environment, for audiences a point of connection.
“You don’t have to be a parent or in education to enjoy these plays,” says Waters. “Everybody’s been to school. And all the outcomes of people’s lives are connected to education.”
‘The Schools Season’, Bush Theatre, London, to February 19 www.bushtheatre.co.uk