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Matt Trueman: We must embrace international work or risk sliding into insularity

The Gob Squad company in Creation (Pictures for Dorian), Gob Squad’s latest show. Photo: Jade Mainade Gob Squad's Creation (Pictures for Dorian) was presented as part of LIFT. Photo: Jade Mainade
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Another London International Festival of Theatre has come and gone, and with it, some of the most inspiring theatre we’ll see all year. As ever, it will leave a residue in its wake.

Duke Riley’s LED-lit pigeons flew like fireflies in formation over the Thames. Beyond that, LIFT brought us Gob Squad’s meditation on the ageing process, Creation (Pictures for Dorian); Anna Deavere Smith’s assault on structural racism, Notes from the Field; and Taylor Mac’s all-singing, all-drag-queen spin on American history.

Each will have inspired homegrown artists, offering an alternative from elsewhere. The best international work has a huge effect on the domestic scene – just look at the impact of Ivo van Hove.

My worry is that we’re losing it. Last month, Gob Squad co-founder Sarah Thom told me it was becoming harder to bring shows back home. About the same time, an independent promoter explained why, apart from Edinburgh, they don’t bring artists to the UK year-round. Our theatres simply can’t cover their costs.

In a recent interview in The Stage, Avignon Festival’s Olivier Py responded to criticism of the lack of British work on his stages by pointing to the absence of French shows on ours. There’s no sign, as yet, of rising talents Thomas Jolly, Caroline Guiela Nguyen and Julien Gosselin, all of whom have established themselves across Europe.

Speaking to Milo Rau in Avignon, the director said he struggled to see where his work might fit in over here. To date, only one of his shows has been seen on the UK mainland: Five Easy Pieces had brief runs at the Unicorn Theatre and Manchester’s Sick festival. His shows are designed to tour internationally, but, right now, where do they go?

It’s hard not to admit that he has a point. The Barbican has lost its Bite seasons, the National Theatre is making eyes at America and the Young Vic is heading in a new direction under new management. While the Gate pulls in foreign plays, it can’t afford to import shows wholesale. It’s left to the big festivals – Edinburgh, Manchester and LIFT – to wave the flag(s), though MIF’s new venue the Factory should step in as well.

I get it. Theatres today have to do much more with less, and priorities have shifted – rightly so. Emerging artists are struggling for opportunities, diversity needs fostering and local communities have to be engaged. Theatre has to make itself more accessible, not less, and international work can seem to put up barriers. It can look elitist. Mid-show, Mac let slip that the NT had considered, then rejected, hosting his epic 24-hour song-cycle in full. Only the National knows why, but it would have taken a lot of taxpayers’ money to bring something brilliant to an audience of 1,200 tops. That might not have looked great.

The risk is that UK theatre slowly slides into insularity and quickly starts to get stuck in its ways. With borders hardening and Brexit on the horizon, British theatre has to find ways to keep looking out. It’s not easy, but it’s necessary.

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