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Matt Trueman: Is UK theatre suffering a lack of innovation?

Bertie Carvel in Ink at the Almeida Theatre; one of the popular and critical successes of the last year. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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When theatre lurches forwards, it’s immediately apparent. It shows in the shows. As audiences, we find ourselves agog again and again, sitting in front of things we’ve never seen before: new models for making theatre, new modes of performance, new ways of watching.

You leave the theatre bewildered and exhilarated and when that starts to happen on a regular basis, you know something’s shifting. It doesn’t work in reverse. You don’t notice when theatre starts settling down or shrinking back – at least not in the same way; not straight away. Slow-downs take time to show up. You don’t see them on stage, but off it. They exist in the gaps between shows, in absences and longueurs. In fact, they’re only visible on reflection: a matter of what’s missing.

Looking back over this year – perhaps last year as well – I’d say our theatre is starting to seize up. There’s still been brilliance but not a lot that’s felt daring and new.

For a few years at the start of this decade, the ground shifted beneath British theatre’s feet. As a critic – hell, as a theatregoer – it was intoxicating. It meant marvelling at theatre, really marvelling at it, on a monthly basis, sometimes more. Show after show seemed to push the form forwards: The Author, Roman Tragedies, Gatz, Internal, Three Kingdoms. I could go on, all the way through Secret Theatre, past Pomona, Men in the Cities, Mr Burns. British theatre reshaped itself in a few short years. It regenerated like Doctor Who.

We’re reaping the benefit of that now. Innovation trickles away. Daring artists attract audiences and, with audiences, backers. The West End has been wholly rejuvenated of late, and it’s telling that the biggest shows of the year have been some of the best. Critical and popular successes have fallen into line: Ink, Follies, The Ferryman, Beginning.

But big hits have outshone – even distracted from – a slow-down on the small-scale. Only a few venues consistently aim at uncertain ends and new forms: the Gate and the Yard, sometimes the Orange Tree and the Royal Court. As cuts have kicked in, venues have protected core activities and it’s independent, emerging and grassroots artists that have taken the hit.

There are two possibilities here. The first is that I’ve grown jaded; that, after a decade of writing about theatre, I’ve seen it all before. The alternative is that there really is a lack of innovation across British theatre at present.

Regular readers of this column will know that I’ve spent a while wrestling with the first of these, worrying that my tastes have stiffened up or that I’ve become immune to experimentation. But what if it’s not me? What if it’s you, theatre?

By its nature, innovation tires itself out. What was radical becomes routine and, without constant cultivation and experimentation, dries up. That knocks on. It affects the whole pipeline and, if we’re not careful, today’s lack of innovation will become tomorrow’s crisis.