Thatcher's Theatre

Thursday April 18th 2013

Margaret Thatcher continues to keep us talking, even in death.

I was born in the Thatcher era, turning five shortly before she resigned in 1990. It’s hard to comment on how I felt about life under her government – but it didn’t escape my attention that she was affectionately referred to as ‘Margaret Thatcher-Milk Snatcher’ in my house.  I had some of my earliest theatre games pretending to be Betty Boothroyd (former Speaker of the House of Commons), silencing my grandma (gallantly playing Mrs. Thatcher) with a ringing ‘ORDER! ORDER!’ (all of this role play comes in handy for crowd controlling the Starling Arts choirs we run!). I won’t do a Harry Styles fan-base style faux-pas and mistake her for a man or ‘something to do with the queen’, but I do think it’s hard for my generation to take in how resounding Thatcher's policies were at the time, for better or for worse.

The One Direction generation on Thatcher's death

On the morning of her funeral, it’s impossible to ignore the dirge of modern protest – largely through the medium of Facebook and Twitter – reflecting upon the comparative amounts spent on a state funeral in the era of cuts and frugality. The Guardian listed countless things £10 million pounds could provide to communities in need – hospitals (322 nurses), schools (272 secondary school teachers), funerals for those unable to afford one (11,111!) foreign aid, libraries, – this list could be endless. Of course, being an avid supporter of the arts for all, I’ve not failed to notice the correlating ‘unavoidable’ arts cuts, and the cost of a funeral that a large number of the population are disgusted by. As regional theatres close, and organizations struggle to reach out to their local communities, the vacuum of funding cuts feels like an open wound this morning. 

Despite her tricky relationship with the arts, Thatcher’s policies have inspired a cross section of creativity, from protest songs, listed here by Michael Haan in his Guardian blog to the political theatre of David Hare, Edward Bond and Carol Churchill and, later, the reactive ‘in-yer-face’ writing of Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane. Thatcher hasn’t escaped musical theatre immortality either, with the miners of Billy Elliot portrayed with ferocity, singing Lee Hall’s lyrics about her impending mortality.

A scene from the musical Billy Elliot

The inclusion of these lyrics was put to an audience vote hours after her death – those present almost unanimously voted to keep the lyrics. You can’t rewrite history, and perhaps theatre is one of the best mediums to reflect on the politics of the past and present. Perhaps that’s why a musical theatre song(!) has made it into the charts this week, with ‘Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead!’, proving that music industry still has the ability to make political statements, albeit by referencing E.Y. Harburg’s iconic 70 year old lyrics about a fantastical witch. Perhaps Thatcher has become something of a 'mythical' figure herself, with the public knowing little of the woman behind the pearls and concrete opinions.  

Margaret Thatcher’s funeral will be an entirely different type of theatre, but it’s clear that her legacy will continue to keep us talking, through song, play or social media.

Emily