While the UK professes to be informed about theatre on the continent, we don’t always know what is good or how to keep the best directors visiting our shores. Nick Awde suggests one way is to appoint a European to a key role
Catching up with an assortment of international producers and critics at a theatre festival in Northern Europe recently, we found ourselves bemoaning how the best European work rarely ends up on the UK’s stages.
My colleagues still remembered David Hare’s withering comments in 2017 about “over-aestheticised European theatre”, when the playwright declared that “all that directorial stuff that we’ve managed to keep over on the continent” was now “beginning to infect our theatre”.
And so the subject turned to the string of European directors feted at the likes of the National Theatre and the Barbican. “You should know,” said a well-known critic from Germany, “that while you in Britain idolise this sort of director, we don’t. These people are destroying our theatre back home.”
The rest of the group readily agreed with the sentiment and wholeheartedly. And they pointed out that while Hare’s complaint was clearly uninformed, so too was the ensuing barrage of criticism aimed at the playwright by the rest of industry in defence of those same directors.
The problem facing both sides of this debate is the same as with Brexit: there is a lack of knowledge and lack of context. While we profess to be informed about European theatre, we don’t always know what’s good and what isn’t because we have so little access to it on our stages. And what access there is comes tightly controlled. Since there are a fair amount of countries in Europe producing a fair amount of work, popping regularly over the Channel to check stuff out is unfeasible for most of us. So why isn’t it coming over here? After all, the UK has a theatre network that’s second to none.
But talk to any serious European theatremaker and they’ll most likely shrug and tell you how they took a groundbreaking show to the UK years back, got rave reviews, found their audience, were courted by enthusiastic producers/venues… and yet somehow never got asked back.
Do they actually need that UK exposure? If we’re talking bums on seats, the answer is no. The inter-nation venue tie-ups, festivals and partnerships linking continental Europe, most of it sensibly funded and forward-looking, provide all the work and access they can handle. And they hardly need the critical affirmation either. Put bluntly, Europe’s top directors don’t need to come over here if they’re not invited.
‘Our exposure to the practice of European theatre comes filtered through the whims of arts-based pundits, mostly viewed through a London lens’
This is precisely why we get the directors we get. Well-heeled institutions that do invite them and can afford it – the National, the Barbican and the Edinburgh and Brighton festivals – programme haphazardly, and their co-productions rarely have legs. There’s not much to convince us why we’re seeing the work we’re seeing, aside from the sneaking feeling that we’re getting leftovers from someone else’s festival. Crucially, there’s not much to show us how that work is viewed in its country of origin.
There is a certain salvation in the shape of Manchester International Festival, BE Festival, the biennial London International Festival of Theatre and the Edinburgh and Brighton fringes. But to be honest we’re struggling to find a definitive annual showcase of the best of European work and beyond in the way presented by the combined Dublin festivals.
Informed reporting from academia and The Stage aside, our exposure to the practice of European theatre comes filtered through the whims of arts-based pundits, mostly viewed through a London lens. They’ll go to comfort-zone festivals where everyone speaks English – Berlin’s Theatertreffen rather than the better-value Avignon, for example – and return home entranced by ‘experimental’ work (‘fringe’ by any other name) staged by mega-budget state theatres with directors who, we are breathlessly informed, are ‘important’.
Invariably, this comes with little research or context that convinces – this is really all about the race to trumpet the latest hot discovery. We’re unlikely to book a flight en masse to see for ourselves, so we have to take such recommendations at face value. We therefore experience European theatre mainly through what we’re told by our peers or via the unrepresentative choices at London’s elite stages that jostle with whatever’s hailed as America’s flavour of the month.
Returning to the question of why European theatre isn’t coming over here in droves, cost is a major obstacle and the crisis in funding at our end means there are other priorities. So here’s a thought: rather than import work wholesale from Europe with the uncertainty of things like cost, context and indeed relevance, might we not instead entice European directors to head our companies and institutions?
That way we’d have their creativity on tap all year round, and we’d soon work out who can cut it and who can’t. The proposition becomes even more intriguing if we conflate the distinction between stage, artistic and managing directors.
Over in Belgium there’s something that might inspire. A German-speaking Swiss national has been brought in to head NTGent, one of the country’s Flemish national theatres. As everyone in the UK rushed to sing Milo Rau’s praises belatedly as a wunderkind director, they sort of missed the point.
Appointing a foreigner to head a national theatre in a country already highly sensitive to internal national(ist) divisions is an audacious move, but then asking them to bring their whole concept of programming along (post-documentary drama in Rau’s case) is risk-taking at its extreme. Except it’s not, because Rau can adapt and deliver – and he knows his audience.
It would be understandable if the National and the RSC were off limits, but could this happen anywhere else in the UK? Directors like Rau or Croatia’s Oliver Frljic don’t have to shake the UK’s tree politically the way they do in Europe but they can certainly shake it culturally.
To put it in context, if the football clubs embraced the unthinkable by bringing in foreign managers, even up to the level of the national teams, would it really hurt us to allow a Rau or Frljic to head our own theatres?
Nick Awde is The Stage’s international editor. Contact email: email@example.com