"Dangerously jingoistic and inward looking"
Dateline: 2nd May, 1999
Sir John Drummond, a former controller of BBC Radio 3 and ex-director of the Edinburgh International Festival, speaking at the ABTT (Association of British Theatre Technicians) annual awards dinner last week, attacked the state of theatre in Britain, claiming it is "dangerously jingoistic and inward looking". He went on to attack drama schools, saying that they concentrate far too much on film and TV, leaving graduates unprepared for stage performance.
British theatre, he thinks, is based far too much on text. "We don't care what it looks like," he said. "We do radio drama in public." He claims that we are lagging far behind the continent, with its "total theatre" using superb sets, costumes and effects.
"Audiences are not going to be kept by a box in which two people talk about their sex lives," he adds. "It is really quite pathetic what we do."
There are echoes here of the words of Jude Kelly (director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse), speaking at the Wimbledon School of Art's annual theatre design conference back in May of last year.
She claimed that British theatre is xenophobic and that European directors who go to shows in the UK often leave at the interval in disgust. "There can be a tendency to want to be very intellectually clear to the point of dryness," she said, "and we are nervous of the bravado, the bravura of great strong feelings."
Sir Peter Hall, speaking at the same conference, agreeed, describing British theatre as "parochial" and "not European enough". "We are," he said, "curiously insulated and curiously proud."
Drummond remarks that the lack of European directors working in the UK adds to the problem, and feels that the fact that there is no international drama festival in London is also a factor.
After my experiences in "discussing" British musical theatre on Usenet (see last week's article), I was greatly interested by another comment he made, that musical and opera producers understand that it is the overall spectacle that will enable theatre to compete with film and television. This view contrasts sharply with that of people like New York theatre critic Clive Barnes who dismisses the British musical with the comment that you come out "whistling the scenery".
In spite of the dismissal of spectacle by people such as Barnes, it has been a part of theatre since theatre first began. Aristotle in the Poetics describes spectacle as one of the six characteristics of tragedy, saying that it is an "attraction" but he considers it the "least poetic" of the six. This was quoted on Usenet as being another argument against the use of spectacle in theatre (Aristotle further says, "The organisation of spectacle is more a matter for the costumier than the poet"), but what the poster omitted to say was that then Aristotle said, "The tragic effect is possible without a public performance and actors".
It is as well to remember that Aristotle was not writing about theatre but that the Poetics compares tragic and epic poetry.
But this is going off at a tangent! Spectacle, although an interesting discussion point in itself, is not the point. There are, I think, two things which we need to look at: the alleged insularity of British theatre and it's concentration on text, on the word.
Insularity or isolationism?
Is British theatre insular? If we except America, then the answer has to be "Yes". We have taken European playwrights to our bosom - Molière (but not really Corneille or Racine), Chekhov, Ibsen, Strindberg, Lorca, Pirandello, even Frisch and Dürrenmatt - but when do we ever watch French, Russian, Scandanavian, Spanish, Italian or German productions?
It is partially, of course, because we in the UK are just so dreadful at languages - and that's because the old imperial attitude that we are the masters of the world and these foreigners should learn English still persists. But that's not the whole story: I think that we have such a rich theatrical heritage that we feel we can't learn anything from anyone else. That's manifestly absurd, of course, as is the belief that the act we are separated from the rest of Europe by twenty-odd miles of sea somehow means that we can ignore the entire continent.
This "little Englander" mentality, which British intellectuals so deplore as a characterisic of the tabloid newspapers, is alive and well and living in British theatre!
In the beginning was the Word
Is British theatre text-centred? I think it is. It is certainly true that the leading physical theatre companies are not British but come from the continent. For instance, the first ever piece of physical theatre to be awarded a Fringe First at the Edinburgh Fringe was by Derevo from Russia: in fact, most of the "advanced" work in physical theatre does emanate from Eastern Europe. In Britain it is very much a minority thing.
However, I am not convinced that this text-centred approach is necessarily bad. It is if we reject all other forms of theatre, but then any exclusive approach to theatre is bound to be limiting and ultimately destructive. Unfortunately we have a tendency to categorise too strictly: do we really need, for instance, to separate a "play with music" from a "musical play", and separate them both from a "musical"? And don't we now talk of "musical theatre", to separate the "sung through" show from the one with dialogue?
I have noted before in this column the difficulty a lot of people seem to have with Cats. It defies our normal process of categorisation. We don't call it a dance piece, because the dancers sing (and sometimes speak), so we have to pigeonhole it as musical theatre. But it doesn't really fit there because in musical theatre (as in musicals) dance is usually something which accompanies a song.
And yet, in terms of audience, Cats is the most successful show of all time both in the West End and on Broadway. How can this be?
Easy! You see, the vast bulk of the audience for Cats, as for all of the mega-shows, is theatrically unsophisticated. They don't come to it with the burden of history on their backs. They don't worry about what niche to fit it into. They don't have any preconceptions as to what a piece of musical theatre (or any other form, for that matter) should be. They go with an open mind and they enjoy, whilst the theatrically sophisticated get into a flat spin over what standards to apply.
There is nothing wrong with a text-centred style of theatre. Of course there isn't - it has produced some wonderful plays and wonderful productions - but it is totally wrong to measure all theatre by this one style. In this, I am afraid, Drummond, Kelly and Hall are right: if theatre (apart from the mega-shows) is not to be the preserve of an esoteric clique, forever contemplating its own navel, then we have to open ourselves to new theatrical experiences, to recognise that human beings are not purely word-centred intellects, and allow the totality of human nature expression in our theatre.
Thank God for people like John Drummond, Jude Kelly and Peter Hall! All we've got to do now is listen to them.