Matt Trueman: Can theatre change the world? You’re asking the wrong question
Let’s start – where else? – with Lady Gaga. There’s a moment in her new fly-on-the-wall Netflix documentary when the singer Florence Welch turns to the popstar and asks how she ever tweets anything. With one tap of her iPhone screen, her words reach 18 million people around the world – 18 million. That’s Christmas prime time. That’s Chile. That’s every Leave voter and then some.
Shortly afterwards, Gaga is in her sitting room with her creative team brainstorming for the Super Bowl half-time show. “I want to do the opposite of what everyone expects,” she stresses.
The dozen or so people around her nod along in agreement. In that moment, you realise, those people are planning a performance that will land on a global level: a show that really could change the world.
A year or so later, an audience of 120 million people worldwide will tune in to see Gaga belt out This Land Is Your Land – a song adopted at anti-Trump protests – from the roof of the NRG Stadium in Houston. One hundred and twenty million. That’s almost two United Kingdoms. That’s almost every vote in the last US election. That’s real cultural power.
It matters when Gaga preaches Born This Way. It matters when she makes a spectacle of herself. These things make a real difference to the way millions of people see themselves.
It matters when Beyonce drops an album like Lemonade, laced with racial politics, just as it matters when Miley Cyrus twerks her way into Robin Thicke’s crotch at the MTV Awards.
Just as it matters when John Boyega takes a lead role in Star Wars and Gwendoline Christie plays its first female villain. These images, these actions, these sounds seep into the global consciousness.
How does theatre even begin to compete? Answer: it doesn’t. It can’t. A sold-out, six-week Royal Court run reaches fewer than 20,000 people. That’s amplified by press coverage and word of mouth, but still, in the grand scheme of things, negligible.
Les Miserables might boast of “more than 70 million people in 44 countries”, but it took 30 years to rack up those figures. During that time the world has changed many times over – rarely, I’d hazard, as a result of Jean Valjean and Co throwing off the shackles of aristocratic rule.
So are theatremakers kidding themselves when they talk of changing the world? Maybe a bit. Change doesn’t have to entail revolution. It’s often said that no play ever changed the law of the land.
But change needn’t be direct or even attributable. It’s subtler than that and theatre, being a local art form, operating on a personal level, works in a different way. Its numbers – small though they seem next to the Super Bowl – aren’t to be sniffed at. If it changes the world, it does so by longshore drift. It changes minds. It changes lives. It changes people.
Maybe, then, we should talk in such terms – not of changing the world, but of making a difference.