Theatre Critic and Journalist

Isn’t it time the National Theatre went international?

Isn’t it time the National Theatre went international?

Published on the Guardian Theatre Blog, 12.12.2011

The National Theatre comes in for greater scrutiny than any other in the country. It must, in a sense, be all things to all people, a distillation of the rest of the theatre ecology while at the same time fill any gaps. In his 1956 essay on “the need for a national theatre”, critic Kenneth Tynan laid out a list of its primary functions: “presenting Shakespeare … reviving the rest of our classical drama, presenting new plays and the best of foreign drama, and preventing recent plays of merit from rusting in oblivion.”

The National has a strong record with all of these – with one glaring exception: foreign drama. Admittedly it’s an ambiguous phrase, which could refer to either new productions of foreign plays or productions from overseas. The former is catered for, the latter not so much.

Though foreign companies routinely feature in the National’s outdoor programme Watch This Space each summer, they have barely been seen inside since Nicholas Hytner took over in 2003. Steppenwolf’s August: Osage County and Sizwe Banzi is Dead from South Africa’s Baxter Theatre are the only two productions imported from outside the UK and Ireland.

In the two years beforehand, under Trevor Nunn, the National had hosted Yukio Ninagawa’s company, Robert Lepage’s Ex Machina and Australia’s Company B Belvoir. Richard Eyre’s very first year (1989) included four such imported productions from Argentina’s Teatro del Sur, Moscow Art Theatre, Steppenwolf and Ninagawa Company, and imports continued throughout both tenures – but then they abruptly stop.

One reason for this, presumably, is that Hytner’s succession coincided with BITE, the Barbican’s international programme, which became a year-round operation after the RSC left the building. If London had its share of international work, the argument perhaps ran – and you could also cite the seasonal Lift and Mime festival programmes – the National no longer needed to fill the gap. Plus there’s the expense of producing and discovering such work. And, as Tynan put it, shouldn’t the National be somewhere “we can send our guests, confidently saying ‘This is our theatre’s best. On this we stand’”?

But it’s not as if there’s a trade cap on international theatre, which, by exposing audiences to different theatrical methods, plays a vital role in our theatre ecology. Apart from anything else, the impact on homegrown work can be vast. British theatre hasn’t looked back since Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble visited the Royal Court in 1956. Lyn Gardner has made a similar prophecy about Ivo van Hove and Toneelgroep – to which I’d add the brash irreverence with which Thomas Ostermeier tackled Hamlet, seen at the Barbican last weekend, and Ontroerend Goed’s work at the Edinburgh fringe.

Many of our major theatremakers – from Complicite to Katie Mitchell – have had to go overseas to shape their practice.

There’s no doubting the influence and importance of international work. The question is: does it fall within the National’s remit?

I’d say yes. With the influx of international work next year (World Stages, the World Shakespeare festival, Globe to Globe, Lift and others) it looks increasingly isolated in not doing so. And more than any other theatre, the National has a responsibility to consider the future of British theatre and extend the possibilities.

To do so, it needs to present alternative models in the form of international theatre. At the same time, part of its job is to place “our” theatre in a global context. It is uniquely placed, as part of a network of other national theatres, to offer a cross-cultural pollination. While it’s brilliant that its own work is seen around the world, shouldn’t the process be two-way?

British theatre frequently crowns itself the best in the world. The accusation that comes back is that this is a pompous and blind superiority complex, that it reeks of an island mentality and, worse, old-fashioned imperialism. However, while our national theatre continues to programme almost exclusively homegrown work, we can hardly refute the charge.

Imagine a Tate Britain that only showed British artists, a British Library that only stocked British authors, and a Proms that played nothing but Land of Hope and Glory on a loop. Why is our national theatre doing likewise?

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