The claim was made recently on a British theater blog: “Playwrights are casting more light on the state of things than politicians.” British dramatist James Graham, whose political comedy “Labour of Love” is making its U.S. debut at the Olney Theatre Center, thinks it might be true.
“At least I hope so,” says Graham, 36, from England. “What theater has going for it that maybe news and social media do not have is that it’s a long-form medium, open to nuance and uncertainty. In the national conversations, that is currently lacking.”
Graham’s way of getting at issues is often to flip the page back a few years for stories that still resonate. Britain’s liberal Labour Party of the 1970s was the subject of his 2012 parliamentary drama “This House,” a hit for London’s National Theatre that toured Britain and transferred commercially to the West End. The Brexit process steered him to write last year’s “Ink,” with Graham turning to the 1960s and mogul Rupert Murdoch’s conversion of the struggling Sun newspaper into a sensation-driven tabloid. (That contentious referendum also inspired the upcoming TV movie “Brexit,” written by Graham and starring Benedict Cumberbatch.) “Ink” will debut on Broadway next spring.
“I’ve always been fascinated about the news, and it felt like the right time,” says Graham, who describes the play as implicating the public’s tendency to bite on scurrilous material. “I love the narrative of history. I loved history classes in school week after week, waiting to see what happened next. History was a great whodunit.”
Graham has scrutinized both sides of the party divide, several years ago writing a play for the National’s youth theater called “Tory Boyz” that dealt with young gay conservatives. But if he talks intently about issues, he is also adamant about entertainment. (An outlier on his résumé is the book for the Broadway musical “Finding Neverland.”) “Labour of Love” toggles between 2017 and 1990 as it examines warring approaches to liberalism between close colleagues. For all its political savvy, the play is routinely described by London papers as a political rom-com, while one critic compared it to Shakespeare’s witty romance “Much Ado About Nothing.”
“I’m very happy with that compliment,” Graham says. “In the U.K., political theater had a reputation of being earnest and serious, and a reputation as something you should see, not something you wanted to see. I think the emphasis now is on being more mainstream, making sure the door is open to as wide an audience as possible. Entertainment used to be quite a dirty word, and I don’t think it is now.”
But politics as a bloodsport: Hasn’t that always been the British way?
“People were self-aware,” Graham says of the commonplace verbal brawls in Parliament. “So even in the middle of the game, interrupting and shouting something at your opponents, afterward you would then go have a drink with your opponents. The idea of a collective spirit has completely broken down.”
That’s true, he thinks, even within party ranks. “The factionalism is sort of astonishing,” he says. “And these are people you’re meant to be working with and voting with. If you deviate from a certain line, you’re a traitor. These words, like ‘traitors,’ ‘treachery’ and ‘betrayal,’ are being learned. You either completely support Trump, or you don’t.”
It all sounds very dramatic.
“As a playwright,” Graham says with a laugh, “I should be thrilled we’re living through the crazy times we’re living through.”
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md. 301-924-3400. olneytheatre.org.
Dates: Through Oct. 28.