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Natasha Tripney: Is Europe ‘infecting’ British theatre culture?

Three Kingdoms, Simon Stephens’ collaboration with German director Sebastian Nubling and Estonian designer Ene-Liis Semper, divided critics in 2012, with some calling it self-indulgent. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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It started the way these things always start. A venerable figure in the theatre industry said a controversial thing. Then other people weighed in to explain why what they said was wrong. A debate ensued. Sides were taken. Responses were written. Part of me is pleased when this happens because conversations about theatre are my favourite conversations, while part of me feels this is all a bit petty and insular. Still, I’m going to wade in, anyway.

To recap, David Hare was quoted in a news story in the Observer based on an earlier interview. In it he said: “We’re heading in Britain towards an over-aestheticised European theatre. We’ve got all these people called ‘theatremakers’ – God help us, what a word! – coming in and doing director’s theatre, where you camp up classic plays and you cut them and prune them around.”

He used the phrase “all that directorial stuff that we’ve managed to keep over there on the continent” and the word “infect” before concluding that he would “feel less warmth towards the British theatre if that ‘state of the nation’ tradition goes”.

Hare must surely have understood how phrases like those would come across, particularly in the uncertain world we currently inhabit. His choice of words made me think of those little arrows in the opening credits of Dad’s Army winding their way towards the Channel, only wielding video cameras, upright microphones and doing that drifting dream-walk of which Katie Mitchell is so fond. While naked.

Hare’s comments drew eloquent responses from, among others, theatre academic Duska Radosavljevic, who wrote an open letter in which she noted his choice of words and urged him not to use them lightly: “The really deadly infection is coming not from the apparent intellectualism of continental theatre, but from the swirling sentiments of xenophobia and nationalism coming from within. Don’t legitimise them: too many people are listening to you.”

Lyn Gardner also presented a counter-argument. “One of the brilliant things about British theatre at the moment is its plurality. There is room for all comers in terms of form and content.” She went on to cite Iphigenia in Splott and Alexander Zeldin’s Love, both as brutal and accusatory pieces of theatre as you’re likely to see, as part of the state-of-the-nation tradition that Hare feels is under threat – he thinks Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem was the last real contender.

How relevant is this to the theatre that is being made today? My colleague Matt Trueman has argued persuasively in the past that the label is unhelpful. Back in 2011, he said there was no such thing as a state-of-the-nation play and that to “refract everything through the prism of national identity feels singularly blinkered”.

If we’re going to use the term, we should recognise its elasticity. Gardner points out that the state of the nation is indivisible from the state of the world. We need to be looking beyond ourselves if we’re to stand a chance of understanding the place we’re in. Nor does theatre need to be sweeping in scope nor full of elegantly crafted monologues to illuminate the world we live in. To my mind, Sh!t Theatre’s Letters to Windsor House is one of the best evocations of the current state of our nation. It is a piece of theatre about the precariousness of urban living, and the psychological and social cost of the housing crisis.

Sh!t Theatre’s Letters to Windsor House dwells on the precariousness of urban living in the UK

Hell, I sometimes think the best dramatic representation of the state of the nation would be to place an audience on a platform made of rusting metal and balsa wood held together with an inadequate number of screws at which a number of women and men in suits would start to kick. It would be prohibitively expensive to anyone who didn’t buy their ticket back in 1985 and the only line of dialogue would be “Fuck!”. I don’t think David would like it.

Hare’s comments in part prompted Michael Billington to outline his anxieties about the lack of classic drama in the National Theatre repertory. On one level, Billington’s argument has weight in that the National’s remit at launch was to mix the classic with the innovative, to celebrate the past as well as championing the new while charting the choppy waters in between. But his fear that these newly announced productions marked “a total severance with the past” and his use of phrases like “concept-crazed directors” felt excessive – as did his conclusion that this marked “a staggering dereliction of the National’s duty”.

There’s another interesting word: “duty”. Because while it’s true that the coming year’s programming features only a handful of revivals – Kushner, Sondheim, Ivo van Hove’s take on Network, the 1976 film by playwright and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, a new piece inspired by Oscar Wilde’s Salome – Rufus Norris has not exactly shied away from the canon at the National. He has programmed Chekhov, Ibsen, Hansberry, Kane, Wilson and a somewhat snoozy Harley Granville Barker. Nor has he stinted on the Shakespeare. But we’re in a time of upheaval and Norris has been remarkably nimble in his response, scheduling plays by DC Moore, David Eldridge and Rory Mullarky that put ideas of Englishness and democracy at their heart, as well as previously announced work by Lucy Kirkwood and Inua Ellams. My Country: A Work in Progress is an attempt by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Norris to take the pulse of the nation, via a series of UK-wide interviews.

It feels as if Norris is delivering exactly what Hare was getting his trousers in a twist about: a programme of ambitious, myth-literate theatre examining the state we’re in. Would I like to see more women on that list? Of course, but I’m pleased to see the NT has doubled the number of Entry Pass tickets for people under 26.

At this time, in this climate, it absolutely should be the National’s duty to engage with the world outside its walls and to make an attempt to take the cultural pulse of the nation – even if this does whiff a little of shutting the stable door after the horse has voted.

Theatre allows us to travel. It has the power to take you to places, to hop continents, inhabit other lives, and to go back in time. This is no surprise given that it’s a great big, slightly cumbersome and incongruous-looking box that emits strange noise, and has an internal landscape that is prone to change.

I love discovering unfamiliar plays from the past. I love the way theatre can reframe my understanding of where we’ve come from and inform my understanding of the places we might be going to. I count revivals of Rattigan’s After the Dance and Shaffer’s Amadeus as two of the best things I’ve ever seen at the National. But now does not feel like the time for theatre to turn inwards. As Trueman responded in WhatsOnStage: “The National, arguably more than any other theatre, has a duty to examine and represent the nation as it is now.”

I agree wholeheartedly. And I think it has a duty to look towards Europe. Not just because some of the most thrilling work I saw last year was made outside the UK, but because drawing all these extra lines, whether generational or national, is not the best use of our energy.

Change is disconcerting and people react to it in different ways. I’m not unsympathetic to Hare or Billington’s stances or where they’re coming from. But there’s a lot in this world to get angry and anxious about at the moment and I do feel we could better use the time spent sniping and swiping at one another to focus on what theatre can offer in times of turmoil: its ability to illuminate, to question, to punch through walls – to speak to and of the state we’re in.