Players on a Global Stage
Published in the Financial Times, 14.11.2014
“Join the Navy”, the recruiting slogan ran, “and see the world”. It’s snappy and enticing. Perhaps London’s theatres could commandeer it.
Over the next three months, you can visit the Philippines, Croatia and India – from the slums of Mumbai to the imperial court of Agra – all without leaving the National Theatre. Across town, in Sloane Square, the Royal Court’s programme has trips to Liberia, Palestine and all the way across Europe scheduled for the new year, while the Tricycle Theatre is currently on an American road trip, taking in California, Pennsylvania and New Orleans in its last three productions.
All but one of these travelling plays is a new piece of work (the Tricycle’s Californian jaunt was Sam Shepard’s True West). That’s unusual. We’re used to seeing Shakespeare set overseas: Indian Midsummer Night’s Dreams and Iraq-war Henry Vs. Other classics, too, come with a strong sense of setting – your Chekhovs and Ibsens, for example.
But new plays are different. For much of the 20th century, state-of-the-nation plays made up the backbone of Britain’s new writing culture. From George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara to The National Health by Peter Nichols or Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, the stage has been a space to interrogate contemporary Britain, its people and its politics. And it still is, with Richard Bean’s phone-hacking satire Great Britain and Mike Bartlett’s constitutional fantasy King Charles III enjoying West End runs.
The stage is a public arena that holds national debates well and, according to the Royal Court’s literary manager Christopher Campbell, it’s “one of the only places where that still happens”. For his counterpart at the National Theatre, Sebastian Born, it’s a question of relevance: “Audiences like to see something of their own lives reflected back at them.”
They don’t necessarily get that in, say, a play charting half a century of Croatian history such as Tena Stivicic’s 3 Winters at the National, or in Diana Nneka Atuona’s examination of the plight of Liberian child soldiers, Liberian Girl, at the Court in January.
“Part of what theatre can do is to be, in a sense, anthropological,” says Born. “It can show you other cultures and other parts of the world.”
Campbell puts it slightly more prosaically: he calls these plays “postcards from elsewhere”.
In which case, pity theatre’s postman. “There’s a much bigger sense that the rest of the world matters more and we matter less,” Campbell goes on. “That’s a political development. It’s an economic development. Fifteen years ago, it was possible to think that events in our parliament were much more important than anything happening in sub-Saharan Africa. Obviously, it’s no longer possible to believe that.” The result, in theatre, is “a renewed commitment to work with an international focus”.
It’s no coincidence that many of these plays take place in the world’s political hotspots: the Balkans, Palestine, India. Partly, these regions allow writers to satisfy the current craving for epic events and grand narratives, and theatre can provide a novel point of access to those situations.
Over the next three months you can visit India, Croatia and the Philippines – all without leaving the National Theatre
It’s all about different forms of knowledge. A news report will give you one angle; a play, another. “When a news report does work,” says Campbell, “it is usually because it’s achieved a measure of theatricality.” He cites Michael Buerk’s reports on the Ethiopian famine, which led to Live Aid – “a very theatrical piece of reportage, taking two or three images and making them representative of the whole”.
Theatre zooms in to exemplify. In an increasingly connected world, with information so easily come by online, it can deepen understanding of half-grasped events, thanks to its ability to humanise distant narratives and frame unfolding history in personal terms. David Hare’s adaptation of Katherine Boo’s searing portrayal of life in a Mumbai slum, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, just opened at the National, uses individual lives to examine much wider themes of global consumption, inequality and poverty. Campbell says his understanding of the Ukrainian crisis is “entirely through the filter of a Latvian play we produced three years ago”, Remembrance Day, which dramatised tensions between the country’s pro-Russian and extreme-right factions.
The desire for first-hand testimony is increasing the number of international writers being programmed in British theatres. “You really want the play to be written from within that country,” says Born.
Elyse Dodgson, head of the Royal Court’s international department since 1995, believes that British theatre is better positioned than ever in terms of its reach, and its ability to react to world events with speed and focus. Within three months of the Ukrainian revolution, the Court hosted Maidan, a series of short verbatim plays by a Ukrainian playwright. “I don’t think there’s anywhere in the world we wouldn’t be able to respond to something happening,” she says.
Those connections have also pushed British playwrights overseas, and writers such as Simon Stephens, David Greig and Dennis Kelly have struck up on-going international collaborations that are reflected in their work. Stephens’ early plays were set in Stockport, his home town, but three since 2012 – Three Kingdoms, Birdland and Carmen Disruption – have hopped across Europe. Sure, with maturity comes a certain worldliness, but those plays all reflect on the connections between countries. A globalised world demands plays to match.
Part of what theatre can do is to be, in a sense, anthropological. It can show you other cultures
However, none of this internationalism would be possible were there not an audience for it. Dodgson remembers, in the mid-1990s, having to resort to free tickets to persuade people to watch work from overseas. “No one wanted to see those plays. Now, even for a reading, they’re absolutely packed.”
The popularity of new writing has soared in the past 20 years, and Campbell believes that it has made audiences “more adventurous”. London, too, has become more multicultural than ever before. “You put on a Colombian play and suddenly – whoosh – the theatre’s full of Colombians.”
Campbell makes it sound like magic. Actually, thanks to social media and data-capturing, theatres are better at target marketing than ever. Go to the theatre. See the world.
Photograph: Michael J. Lutch