For more than two years, we have known that March 29, 2019 was the date set for the UK’s departure from Europe. I have watched with a growing disappointment at theatres’ response to this impending date, which has proved to be decidedly lacklustre.
It’s not that there haven’t been attempts. The National’s 2017 production My Country; A Work in Progress tried to create a verbatim piece that asked if there can ever be a truly United Kingdom. But in the end, it felt more like an effort to be the first Brexit show out of the gate. Then there was a short season transfer of Rob Drummond’s play The Majority, but nothing particularly significant at the NT has followed.
Plays on the fringe have included Julie Burchill and Jane Robbins’ new play People Like Us and Brexit by Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky. In January, London’s Yard Festival hosted the Brexit Stage Left Festival featuring eight plays from Europe that kept the identity of each writer secret until the end.
But where is that big state-of-the-nation play? Once David Hare would have been salivating over his typewriter to deliver it; instead, his 2018 play I’m Not Running seemed decidedly divorced from the current political situation. Meanwhile, political playwright James Graham chose instead to focus his attention on television with the drama Brexit, while leading touring theatre company Headlong linked with the Guardian newspaper for a series of short plays by acclaimed writers but put these on TV rather than on stage.
When it actually comes to March 29, it’s not like theatres did not have the time to think about what they might present on the night. Looking at three of our leading and influential producing theatres tomorrow night – the day we had been scheduled to leave Europe – the National is presenting Follies, Top Girls and Downstate. The Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon presents Taming of the Shrew and Kunene and the King; London’s Royal Court is dark in its upstairs theatre and downstairs hosts the launch of The State Between Us, a new album by Matthew Herbert and the Great Britain Gibraltar Union Referendum Big Band.
Of these three national companies, only the Royal Court has made some kind of direct response, but even this feels small in contrast to the National Theatre of Scotland, which presents Dear Europe, a curated evening with six of its country’s theatremakers creating short response pieces to be performed on the planned night of EU departure.
“I think art is much less effective when it’s direct. Isn’t that the problem with political theatre, too much directness?” remarks one of the characters in US playwright Anne Washburn’s new play, Shipwreck. It’s a point she cleverly dispels in this darkly powerful modern history play about Trump and today’s America. Washburn is one of a number of US contemporary playwrights who are responding on stage to their country’s political situation.
In the US, theatre has once again become an important platform for such address. And these works are not simply being presented in the subsidised sector, they are also being placed front-and-centre on Broadway, as with Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, which transferred from Off-Broadway. Schreck’s play joins a legacy of other past works that in the US have taken up a mainstream platform during times of political challenges.
The attitude of the UK’s entertainment industry towards Brexit has been confusing. On the one hand, it’s been keen to highlight the concerns it faces as a result of leaving the EU and also broadcast star-driven TV dramas on the subject. But last Wednesday at 8.30pm, when Theresa May addressed the nation, none of the five major networks cut away from their prime-time broadcasts to show it live. It seemed that Coronation Street and Holby City were deemed more important. Instead, snippets of the prime minister’s address were then shown in their respective later-evening news broadcasts.
The influential national power of the entertainment industry cannot be ignored and the example that it sets needs to be taken seriously. Theatre used to be a primary source that people looked to as the platform for debate and information. Today, social media has changed all that, but these advances cannot mean theatre allows itself to be left lagging behind. Arguably, it now has a far greater role post-Brexit to play in both addressing unity and inclusion throughout the UK.
Theatre cannot allow itself to be left lagging behind the national debate
This is not an easy task as, inevitably, audiences are going to be made up of Leavers and Remainers. Therefore, this needs careful balance and respect in the message and attitudes conveyed that are achieved through the work it presents.
However, I think theatre has missed an opportunity. Many of its theatres throughout the UK could have made powerful statements of intent to coincide with March 29. They could have used the time up to the (supposed) departure for developing collaborations and co-productions with European counterparts to present on their stages on the night.
Tomorrow with the Theatre Royal Plymouth, we will be presenting Loopstation, our 11th co-production with Belgian performance group Ontroerend Goed. It was one of the last masterful programming decisions of Plymouth’s outgoing artistic director Simon Stokes, who makes a clear reference to the theatre’s continued commitment to European collaboration by opening the production during this week.
Plymouth is a city that voted to leave Europe, but tomorrow’s performance is not about division or accusations of whether the decision to leave was right or wrong – it’s about the city’s own theatre bringing audiences together in the collective way it has done for decades, to share and celebrate a cross-cultural production that draws across a range of talent from home and abroad.
Against today’s other media, theatre cannot lose its fighting spirit, but when the chaos of Brexit is eventually resolved and we deal with the aftermath, it has a vital role to play in healing divisions and rebuilding communities. This comes with a huge responsibility for theatre to deliver the right message coming at a time when its presence has never been more needed.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan