THE GREAT AUSTERITY DEBATE – 10TH OCTOBER 2018

by Eli Lambe

Created as a collaboration between Menagerie Theatre Company and the University of Cambridge Geography department, The Great Austerity Debate is a collaborative experience aiming to bring the experiential and material consequences of austerity into focus through the life of one single mum, Megan.

The experience begins with a 50-minute performance of ‘A Week in the Life of Megan K’ – a play which takes the bland, abstract austerity figures and explores the ways in which they creep into the everyday lives of the ones hit the hardest. The audience is encouraged to get involved through the form of “forum theatre”, which engages the audience with the actions and events the characters portray. Patrick Morris, writer-director of the endeavour, describes the form as going “one step further than presenting a play about the issue” and as a space where ideas can be generated and tested through collaboration between the audience and the performers. As such, it strikes me as a powerful and empowering experience.

Taking the performance out of theatre-venues and into community centres, churches and unions in towns where the effects of austerity are most keenly felt, brings the experience out of the abstract and closer to the local audiences.

Involving the audience in the complex decisions facing the people hit the hardest by austerity is an engaging idea which has the potential to create genuine compassion in a debate so often governed by the moral condemnation of the most vulnerable. It also makes the second, interactive, part of the event less predictable – a different audience, a different context, will generate different outcomes. With this in mind, The Great Austerity Debate works hard to be accessible to audiences with experiences closer to the subject. Taking the performance out of theatre-venues and into community centres, churches and unions in towns where the effects of austerity are most keenly felt, brings the experience out of the abstract and closer to the local audiences. I do wonder how a more hostile audience might interact with the play, and how far it would be able to penetrate for those most responsible for austerity and its devastating effect on people’s lives.

This model is hugely encouraging, translating the necessarily painstaking and difficult work of mapping the infrastructure of austerity and taking the debate out of the hands of politicians and bureaucrats.

Collaboration is taken further in the inception of the experience – researchers Dr. Mia Gray and Professor Susan J. Smith bring their work into the script of “A Week in the Life of Megan K”, capturing the overwhelming and intersecting complexities of life under a system designed to cut out as much care as possible. As Dr. Gray puts it, “Although it affects all of us – and I mean all of us – it often is quite invisible, it’s very hard to actually trace it – where the cuts are happening, to what budgets, in what way? How does it affect us all? It’s really difficult, even as academics, to trace that through to the local level, and so, one thing we wanted to do was to really make this visible.” Given how often academic research of this kind comes under fire for being overly complex and inaccessible, this model is hugely encouraging, translating the necessarily painstaking and difficult work of mapping the infrastructure of austerity and taking the debate out of the hands of politicians and bureaucrats.

The Great Austerity Debate will take place in Norwich on Wednesday 10th October at the Octagon Unitarian Chapel, NR3 1BN. Tickets are available HERE, for more information call 01223 403361 or visit the Menagerie Theatre Company website.

Featured image by Roger Blackwell (CC)


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