All the world’s Britain’s stage
This country has a depth of theatrical talent and material that is the envy of nations and often, it seems, travel broadens the appeal
Michael Billington reflects on how our theatre is the envy of other nations
THEATRE is one of Britain’s greatest exports. Our dramatists, directors, composers and companies, like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, put a girdle round about the Earth.
Naturally, Shakespeare is still regarded as our prime asset, a point forcefully made by Dom-inic Dromgoole in his recent book, Hamlet: Globe to Globe, that recorded the big adventure of taking the play from London’s Bankside to just about every country in the world. However, living artists are also highly prized abroad, a point we should remember when people question, as they sometimes do, the value of cultural subsidy.
Subsidy has, in fact, helped foster a roster of living playwrights that is the envy of other nations. It always strikes me as one of life’s richest ironies that Broadway, the most commercial theatre on Earth, depends heavily on British dramatists nurtured by public money.
The National Theatre, in particular, has long had a hotline to Broadway that has led to a train of transfers, from Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus and David Hare’s Plenty in the late 1970s to, more recently, Alan Bennett’s The History Boys and Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors. The Bennett and Bean plays had one intriguing side-effect in that they have turned James Corden, who appeared in both, from an admired roly-poly, comic actor into a popular latenight, talk-show host on American television.
New York is a natural home for British plays, but, although some are simply replicated on Broadway, I’ve known instances where they have actually improved on the transatlantic crossing. I have in mind Sir Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing: I enjoyed it when I first saw it in London in 1982, but when, two years later, I caught Mike Nichols’s New York production, it seemed even richer.
The opening scene, which forms a mini-play-within-a-play, was performed in heavily inverted commas to emphasise its artificiality. Jeremy Irons as Sir Tom’s playwright hero opened himself to the possibility of pain in a way that eluded his London counterpart and seemed both more vulnerable and melancholy. Glenn Close, as his briefly adulterous wife, also had a matchless magnetism and sexual vibrancy.
The original London productions of Sir Tom’s plays had emphasised his cleverness, but, after that Nichols production, directors paid more attention to his beating human heart.
New York is not the whole of the USA, however, and I’ve been struck by the way regional theatres have sometimes paid British dramatists the ultimate compliment: they’ve commissioned them to write plays on specifically American themes.
In 2002, I travelled to Ashland, Oregon, home of a famous Shakespeare festival, to see two plays by David Edgar called Continental Divide. They offered a wise and witty dissection of American politics and of the black arts of spin: one particular scene showed a candidate for high office being sedulously coached in the art of the TV debate.
A decade later, I went to the magnificent Guthrie Theatre— named after a great British director—in Minneapolis to see
Appomattox, two plays by Christopher Hampton. The first dealt with the surrender of the Confederate army to Union forces in the Civil War. The second, even more brilliantly, showed Lyndon Johnson’s embrace of the civil-rights movement in the mid 1960s. I just wish they’d been given the exposure they deserve in Britain.
Those two plays were part of a festival devoted to Mr Hampton—it’s astonishing that you’re more likely to find seasons of work by British playwrights abroad than at home.
Sarah Kane was a radical dramatist who died tragically young at the age of 28 and whose five plays get spasmodic revivals in Britain, but I remember being invited to the Berlin Schaubühne a few years back where all her plays were in repertory and where she was the subject of an international conference. Thomas Ostermeier, the Schaubühne’s director, also staged her first play, Blasted, on an epic breadth and scale that would have been unimaginable in Britain.
Our dramatists are cherished abroad, but so too are our composers: more specifically, Andrew Lloyd Webber, who has helped transform the British musical from an item of parochial charm into a global franchise. Earlier this summer, Lord Lloyd-webber equalled a long-held record by Rodgers and Hammerstein by having no less than four shows running concurrently on Broadway: Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Sunset Boulevard and School of Rock. What is striking is the range they cover from dance-driven spectacle to book-driven shows and something as liberating as School of Rock, in which a supply teacher unleashes the musical demons of a group of pre-teens.
Although Lord Lloyd-webber dominates the musical scene, he’s not the only game in town.
Groundhog Day, with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin (who was raised in Australia, but born in Northampton), is currently enjoying great success in New York in an exuberant Matthew Warchus production first seen at the Old Vic.
British directors are as ubiquitous as our dramatists. Peter Brook, now in his early nineties, is still the most famous living director and regularly despatches productions around the world from Paris, where he has long been resident. Stephen Daldry famously revived J. B. Priestley’s
An Inspector Calls at the National Theatre in 1992 in a production that has since traversed the globe. That led to his enjoying huge transatlantic success with Billy Elliot the Musical, David Hare’s Skylight and Peter Morgan’s The Audience, which put The Queen on stage in the person of Dame Helen Mirren. Katie Mitchell is, quite simply, a pan-european director whose work you are as likely to see in Berlin, Hamburg or Vienna as at London’s Royal Court.
If our directors are internationally known, so too are our major companies. Over the years, I have followed the National Theatre to Athens with Coriolanus and to Tbilisi with Shakespeare’s late plays, even if the costumes and sets remained obstinately delayed in Moscow. More recently, the RSC has opened up a hotline to China by touring both parts of Henry IV and Henry V to Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong and by facilitating new translations of the entire canon.
Wherever you look around the world, you will find the British footprint. Drama is something we do exceptionally well. And, although it would be untrue to say that our prophets are not honoured in their own country, I sometimes wonder if we grasp the extent to which our national identity is dependent on the vibrancy of our theatre.
‘Broadway, the most commercial theatre on Earth, depends heavily on British dramatists nurtured by public money ’
We lead the world in playwrights (such as Sir Tom Stoppard) and a wealth of acting talent from the classical (Alex Hassell and the RSC) to the comedic (James Corden)
It’s not just British musicals such as Billy Elliot and The Phantom of the Opera that lead the world– Shakespeare is at home everywhere