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

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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)

Michael Billing­ton

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.