Playwright Anders Lustgarten on neoliberalism, Jeremy Corbyn and more
The Brighton-based writer explains why Corbynism is the most important political development in British politics for 30 years.
Anders Lustgarten has an enviable reservoir of energy. The playwright travelled down from an early morning rehearsal in the midlands so he could see a play at the Young Vic theatre, before bundling over to my table in the downstairs bar late afternoon. He had just approached another customer mistaking the tall man to be me, having being informed that I was 6ft 7. Brushing aside any notions of embarrassment, Lustgarten instead takes his pew with a deep concentration in his eyes, which remain wide and fixed throughout our conversation.
The writer is deep in preparations for his new play, The Seven Acts of Mercy, released later this month at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Juxtaposing 21st Century Bootle, a town in Liverpool, with 17th Century Naples, the play explores the “dangerous necessity of compassion, in a world where it is in short supply”. It visits Caravaggio working on his first painting since killing a man and fleeing Rome, seeking to convey empathy in a violent world. This is set against a retired dock-worker Leon, who attempts to pass on principles of compassion to his grandson, Mickey, in a community beset by economic degradation.
“If your first painting after you commit murder is about compassion and expiation, there’s something quite interesting in that artistically,” Lustgarten explains, his index finger resting above his mouth as he assembles his thoughts. “There’s just a real human intensity to it, and as a medium for carrying the idea of violent compassion as a radical thing, it has a lot of application to today; a period of almost unprecedented cruelty in politics, certainly compared to the last 30 or 40 years. The idea of compassion is as radical an idea as you can think of, when people are building walls everywhere.”
Lustgarten unleashes his unabatedly political mind into his writing. Previous works include Lampedusa, a play about the migration crisis, and Black Jesus, which looked at a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. The London born man, now a resident of Brighton, became political at a young age, and up until recently, considered himself an activist first, playwright second. He only took to writing after teaching in prisons and being approached to put on a production. Having harnessed his skills over the ensuing years, he does not wish to impose his views, but sees theatre as a vehicle to allow for a coveted moments pause.
“There is a misconception because I am highly political and have lots of opinions that I’m going to try and get everyone else to think what I think,” he says. “I don’t have any interest in that at all. If you want to do that you do write a political column, or a blog. If you write a piece of creative fiction, by definition you can’t control the reactions to it, the emotional things people would take.”
The term neoliberal, or neoliberalism, features 12 times in the transcript of our conversation. Such prolific use can cause one to recoil in fear the interview subject, or dinner party guest, is about to explain how moves to oust Jeremy Corbyn this summer was orchestrated by Mi5. But Lustgarten is no intellectual mug, nor a conspiracy theorist, quite the opposite. He has a PhD in political science and studied Chinese Politics at California’s Berkeley University. The Seven Acts of Mercy (cast pictured below) explores how neoliberalism has distorted the notion of community. He argues that the premise of the system is “that everybody else is a problem”.
“Everybody else is competition, everybody else is a threat, there’s not enough to go around and therefore you’ve got to fight for your corner,” he says. “It creates a relationship to other people that is profoundly antagonistic, and based on the idea of fear.”
It has led to a society in which we hold in fear the other, be they refugees or migrants, even though they are acute victims of the pursuit of neoliberal values, he argues.
“Neoliberalism sets people against each other and makes them very insecure, because it sells their homes out from under them, it sells their communities out from under them, it sends their jobs to China,” he says.
He believes that theatre can help dilute its consequences: “I think there’s something about theatre where it’s quite antithetical to that intrinsically. It’s a very collective experience, it’s a shared experience, it’s something that everybody takes part in and contributes in even as an audience member. I think that’s quite microcosmic of a good society.”
With his mind continually whirring away, a lifetime of activism was always on the cards. Growing up in Oxford, Lustgarten, then a competitive runner, would train with children whose fathers were struggling to find work. After, he would pass the Bullingdon Club en route to his next destination. This inequality did not seem fair, he remembers thinking.
Lustgarten was a member of the Occupy protest movement. He is also a recent fully paid up member of the Labour party. Galvanised by Corbynism, Lustgarten is reticent to talk of the man, but instead of the political movement.
“I don’t necessarily think Corbyn is nearly as important as Corbynism, which is extremely important. Corbynism is basically a sense of lots and lots of people having waited in vain for somebody to come out and say there is an alternative to neoliberal capitalism, saying ‘fuck this we are going to do this ourselves’, and rather accidentally, managing to take over major a political party through a court of electoral reform,” he says.
He is quick to make clear that his plays are by no means the “art wing” of the Labour leader’s political vision. “Corbynism is the most important political development in British politics for 30 years. I don’t think my plays serve an explicitly Corbynist agenda.”
Lustgarten won the Harold Pinter Playwright Award in 2011, and still in his 30s, is considered an emerging star on the theatre scene. His forthrightness – he is no stranger to an explicit soliloquy – makes him a fascinating interviewee. He was born to American immigrant parents with Hungarian Jew ancestry, and is unreservedly outspoken on matters to which he feels he can contribute.
On Brexit, Lustgarten says it was a “fascinating phenomenon”, with the alienated working class “punching the elite in the face” after years of being ignored by the political system. “Obviously a lot of that is incredibly self-defeating. If you look at what that statement implies, [Brexit] will hit the people who are doing the punching harder than it will hit anybody else,” he adds.
Here he turns his attention to Westminster. “The basis on which people voted to leave was almost entirely based on lies. The basis on which we were taking to the Iraq War was entirely based on lies. I don’t think as someone who is interested in politics, that’s kind of fatal to not just belief in the political class, but belief in truth.”
Lustgarten believes that the consensus around neoliberalism will not draw to a close soon, as it is “embedded in our social, political and emotional values”. It has permeated the arts too, he argues, shown by the recent firing of Globe theatre director, Emma Rice. He laments that people were more outraged that she was sacked despite strong commercial success, rather than her short-lived tenure.
“People can’t think about people without seeing them through the lens of money. How much are these 3,000 Syrian – children – going to cost us? How much would it – cost – to start to implement a green economy.
“You see it in the arts all the time, Emma Rice sold a lot of tickets therefore she’s doing well. No, Emma Rice shouldn’t be fired because you don’t hire an artist and then fire a fucking artist four months later. That’s totally disrespectful.”
He does however believe that not all is lost. He notes how Corbyn’s rise to prominence comes “in a period in which people have nothing but contempt for political parties and politicians”. “That has to be revitalising,” he muses. While change will be incremental, he argues the tide is beginning to turn against the current consensus.
“Those values are so imprecated in us now, that to say let’s do it all on a different level, there’s no solid foundations for that. People will have to find their way to it, and it won’t come through a centralising diktat. It won’t come through a set of ten demands or protocols. That’s why Corbynism is exciting, because it is that sense of the weird, and the liminal, and the marginal, and the uncontrolled, just starting to do things for themselves. That is where change comes from.”
The Seven Acts of Mercy is showing at the RSC from 24 November – 10 February. Book Tickets here.