We go to the theatre partly to see ourselves: to see our own lives and experiences reflected back to us. But we also go to the theatre to see other lives: to experience life through others’ eyes, and so to come to a greater understanding of ourselves and our own place in the world.
I often say that theatre enables me to live my life vicariously; and many actors I’ve spoken to say the same thing: that acting is a way of living more than one life at a time.
No single play (or musical) can ever hope to encompass the whole range of human experience, and nor should it. What theatre does so often and so profoundly is to find the universal in the particular: we relate to the stories we are being told by dint of their truthfulness.
There’s a great story about Fiddler on the Roof, the musical about the enforced Jewish diaspora from Russia in the early 20th century, which received its first non-English production in Japan. Its late book writer Joseph Stein said that when he arrived for rehearsals there, its producer asked him: “Do they understand this show in America?” Stein replied: “Yes, of course, we wrote it for America. Why do you ask?” The producer replied: “Because it’s so Japanese.”
Stein went on to say: “At that moment I realised we had unwittingly written something very special and apparently universal. The themes of the show are as true to the Japanese experience and Japanese culture as they are to American or English: the breakdown of tradition, the differences between generations, the eagerness to hang on to a religious background. These things are very much a part of the human experience. If anything, Fiddler on the Roof is even more relevant today, because it talks about a world in turbulence.”
It is a show that even now is receiving simultaneous but very different productions in London and New York, at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London and Off-Broadway respectively. I’ve not seen the Menier show, but the New York one (about to transfer from the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park to Stage 42 on 42nd Street) is remarkable: it’s performed in Yiddish, with English surtitles, which makes it sound even more specific to the community it portrays.
This week, I revisited the first part of The Inheritance, Matthew Lopez’s epic about the legacy of HIV/Aids on the gay community and the entire generation it lost us. It’s a reminder of what those years cost us, but moreover wonderfully reclaims and reasserts the importance of remembering our history. It is rare that I feel like a play is talking directly to me (and my surviving generation of gay men), but this play did.
However, I’ve read some commentators criticising the play for its narrowness of focus and its exclusion of female voices, except for a late appearance by a bereaved mother, played by Vanessa Redgrave. In a review for Time Out, Alice Saville commented: “Her appearance is the first sense that any women exist in this world, and she’s there to mourn, repent, and care for a suffering man, not to have her own agency.”
But does Top Girls (soon to be revived at the National) fail by not representing men? Playwrights choose what and who they write about; and it’s not for critics to direct them. But I’m grateful, moved and honoured that Lopez has written about his – and my – community with such feeling, tenderness and care.
In the same way, I caught up with another American playwright’s work, Danai Gurira’s The Convert, at the Young Vic this week. It tells a story of faith and identity (racial, political and religious) in late 19th-century colonial southern Africa. It’s a tremendous play: as Sarah Crompton put it in a review for WhatsOnStage: “It forces you to look at history through the other end of the traditionally shaped telescope; where the black characters in so many dramas are described by the white ones who dominate the stage, Gurira (born in the US but brought up in Zimbabwe) makes the African experience the complex, riveting central one.”
In the process, the play transcends the usual prism through which we hear these stories. I was struck, in particular, by just how mixed the audience was.
White, black, young and old: this is what an inclusive theatre looks like. That is absolutely what theatre should aspire to, but it does not mean that works of art should not tell stories that are rooted in specific communities.
Mark Shenton is associate editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Wednesday and Friday at thestage.co.uk/columns/shenton