Theatregoers have a lot to thank the Olympics for. Over the next four months, many of the best theatre companies from around the world will be performing in the UK in the biggest influx of international theatre this country has ever seen.
What better time to admit that mainstream British theatre has a severe Little Englander complex? Our theatre culture isn’t xenophobic so much as blinkered. For the most part, we like our theatre played with a straight bat. We do naturalism and state of the nation. Where we dare venture into or even beyond the empty space, we’d rather things remained this side of literalism.
This has resulted in the exile of leading British theatre artists. Peter Brook emigrated to Paris in the 1970s. (His latest work, The Suit, visits the Young Vic in May for World Stages London.) More recently, Katie Mitchell has been edged out, seemingly restricted to theatre for children at the National Theatre. Love or hate her work, Mitchell is one of our most globally significant directors and, this summer, she presents a new piece, Ten Billion, at the Avignon Festival, arguably the biggest international festival of theatre in the world. You wouldn’t know it. Avignon remains almost entirely ignored in this country.
By its nature, theatre is a localised artform. In spite of the success of NT Live (which broadcasts theatre live to cinemas), audiences and performers need to share the same space. This means that other cultures must come to us, but there remains relatively little international work in this country. While the West End tempts Hollywood stars, only the Barbican shows truly international theatre in London regularly, through its “bite” programme. Steppenwolf’s Detroit, which opens at the National this month, is only the fifth show from outside the UK and Ireland programmed since Nicholas Hytner’s appointment in 2003. (Four of those originated in the United States.)
British theatre should watch and learn from this summer’s array. The Cultural Olympiad has already begun, with Cate Blanchett starring in the Sydney Theatre Company’s ravishing production of Big and Small at the Barbican. Then, there’s the Edinburgh International Festival with directors such as Silviu Purcarete, Christoph Marthaler and Grzegorz Jarzyna, and the World Shakespeare Festival, including New York’s Wooster Group tackling the Bard.
London has two festivals of its own: the biennial London International Festival of Theatre (Lift) from June and World Stages London. Highlights include the playwright Simon Stephens collaborating with the German director Sebastian Nübling on Three Kingdoms, and Babel, a new large-scale work from WildWorks. Lift includes Gatz, Elevator Repair Service’s staging of The Great Gatsby and Back to Back Theatre’s Ganesh v the Third Reich, performed by an ensemble of actors with disabilities.
Feast or famine
The worry is that such a feast will be followed by famine. The government’s cuts to arts funding have kicked in and a disproportionate volume of spending has been channelled into a short period of time.
Already, several theatres have opted to show revivals instead of new work this winter. “Legacy” is intended to be a core element of the Olympics, and the arts have a similar opportunity. All the more reason to look to overseas theatre-makers for inspiration.