Theatre Critic and Journalist

LIFT Blog: Theatre & the Arab World

LIFT Blog: Theatre & the Arab World

Published on LIFT Blog, July 2010

Reading an interview with the New York based actor Danny Hoch on the tube home last night, I came across the following: “I think there should be a revolution: the people of New York City should take over Broadway and kick everyone else out because theatre is supposed to be for the people. Broadway and off-Broadway are not for us; there are ten million people in the city and the majority of us live in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Upper and Lower Manhattan and Queens. Yet the shows on Broadway in New York are about riverboats in Mississippi and the audiences that come to see the shows are also from Mississippi. Off-Broadway theatre is no better, with its stories about struggling suburban upper-middle-class families, playing to an audience also from the suburbs. Why don’t the show those plays out in the suburbs? Why don’t the Mississippi people have their Mississippi plays in Mississippi?”

In terms of audience, theatre is constrained by time and place. Its audience is necessarily limited. Auditoriums and other spaces can only hold so many people. Those that fill them must be co-present at a particular time, in a particular place. That means that the majority of any audience will live in a certain vicinity of the theatre that they are attending. Theatre, therefore, is a local medium. It would seem to follow, as Hoch demands, that theatres have a duty to reflect the needs and concerns of their audience. In other words, theatres ought to tackle local issues.

At one level, that would seem to negate international work. Why ought LIFT – a festival defined by its location in London – present work that is so concerned with elsewhere? In choosing to turn focus on the Middle and Near East and North Africa, isn’t Mark Ball ignoring the needs of his audience? Following Hoch’s argument, might we not even go so far as to call for the abolishment of LIFT?

Clearly, the answer is an emphatic no. To do so would be to fill our theatres with plays about knife-crimes, nationalism and MPs expenses scandals. It would be to elevate state of the nation – no worse than that, the state of the individual – to pole position. After all, why should I – a middle-class, white, male twenty-something – care about what it might mean to be a black teenager or a disabled former soldier or a grieving mother? Where’s the theatre that reflects my experiences and concerns? (Must I be confined to the Royal Court?)

No. Theatre is about empathy. It is about the perspective of others, as much as it is a reflection of the self. Theatre has an extraordinary capacity to present locales. When played the context of the locale itself, its purpose and meaning is vastly different to a performance in another context, in another city, in another country. Theatre’s meaning – art’s meaning – is necessarily fluid and relative.

Work like Aftermath and Hobb Story affords us and exposes us to a viewpoint on the lives of others, lives lived elsewhere. Theatre allows us to see the world without straying too far from home. Sure, it’s no replacement for travel. Any theatre that portrays a location or lifestyle that I have not had opportunity to experience will, of course, reflect my preconceptions. In Continuous City, Deb speaks of the familiarity of London after watching to Ab Fab and Ross’s wedding trip in Friends. But, crucially, it also has the power to change those preconceptions and shift them on their axis. That is, to tell it as it is or, rather, as it is seen, and alter our understanding accordingly. It becomes a part of our preconceptions. That reflects this desire of artists to tell their own story and want their voices to be heard that cropped up at last Thursday’s talk. “Don’t assume,” they tell us, “Let us explain. Let us show you.”

Besides, what LIFT proves is that London must be defined by its position within the world at large. Continuous City and Life Streaming shatter the idea that London can ever exist as a bubble of self-concern. Mark Ball spoke of the region’s geopolitical importance on Thursday and there’s no denying that it affects us and is of concern to us as Londoners. Hoch’s argument, for all its admirable tenacity and virtuousness, must be seen as a simplistic view of a complex whole.

Photograph: Dries Verhoeven

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