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Xenophobia and Loathing in British Theatre: Why Hare and Billington are Irrelevant

british theatre Something rattled someone's cage. Scene from 'The Quentin Dentin Show'. Photograph: Courtesy of Michaela Bodlovic.

Playwright David Hare thinks British theatre is “infected” by European directors, and Michael Billington blames too few classics. But theatre doesn’t care.

Dear, oh dear. It’s not often you get a top playwright and a well respected critic finding themselves on similar pages, so when it happens, you know this can’t be good. Both critic Michael Billington and playwright David Hare have appeared in the Guardian and Observer respectively, mourning the decline of British theatre and offering theories as to why this is the case: Billington begroans the lack of “classics” being performed, and Hare balmes European directors: spouting anti-European xenophobia like he spent the morning on the toilet taking too hard a Brexit. But their opinions, although infuriating and/or laughable, shouldn’t worry anyone because theatre has passed them anyway and really doesn’t care.

I *Heart* EU

With European theatre there’s a risk and a craven creativity that you simply don’t see very often in mainstream British theatre.

Dead certain. James Waud as Dick Deadeye in ‘HMS Pinafore’. Photograph: Courtesy of Francis Loney.

It won’t surprise people to learn that I’m a “Bremoaner”, but it’s not my political and economical persuasions that have be backing why I think foreign theatre not only important, but brilliant. Hare is actually quoted as saying that Europeans are “beginning to infect” British theatre (Seriously? “Infect”?! At least it’s not as cliche as the cockroach analogy). For starters, this assumes that British theatre isn’t sick to begin with. You only have to look at Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s report on diversity and the very recent #StopYellowFace protest to see that British Theatre really has a problem with being anything but white, middle-class, and traditional. So to blame it’s supposed decline on embracing European diversity with regards to directors and productions is simply mind-boggling.

The great thing about European theatre, and from within the narrative Hare seems to be spinning, is that it’s wild and bold. Yes, admittedly it doesn’t work sometimes, and there are certainly occasions where directorial ego ruins a play. But that’s simply bad theatre, and has nothing to do with the director’s origin. But with European theatre there’s a risk and a craven creativity that you simply don’t see very often in mainstream British theatre. Indeed, we often play it too safe with commercial theatres putting on mostly revivals of old plays that are often produced in quite a traditional, or at least not unorthodox, ways. But by blowing up the work and placing it back together like some European Frankenstien’s monster, and/or doing something completely mad with it, can be incredibly enlightening providing the vision for doing so is clear and well-conceived enough. The result is that you might suddenly see something in a work that you never knew existed, or that its framed in a way to make you think differently about it and/or more contemporary issues.

The Polish Way

[British] audiences will never experience Shakespeare so vividly because it’s too radical and, according to Hare, a contagious biohazard.

British theatre

Hot stuff. Scene from ‘Antoniusz i Kleopatra’. Photograph: Courtesy of Magda Hueckel.

A great recent example of this is when I went to visit fellow critic, Alex Ramon of Boycotting Trends, in Łodz, Poland, in November last year. Before my trip, he floated the idea of seeing a production of Antony and Cleopatra entirely in Polish (Antoniusz i Kleopatra). I was a little hesitant a first: the idea of a “traditional” staging all in a language I didn’t understand at all would probably bore me to tears. But upon seeing some of the production pictures it seemed lively and modern: so we went for it. What transpired was one of the most thrilling and wild 2 hours (no interval) of my life. It was nuts! There was a flamethrower, a full-frontal male nudity champagne enema, bisexual threesome wine-snowballing in a shallow pool of ashy water (caused by said flamethrower), people covered in white body paint throwing themselves violently against tabs, and even great Ceaser’s ghost was haunting the characters for the most part, which I’m fairly sure isn’t in William Shakespeare’s original. But, despite not understanding a word, I was hooked, and the production honed right in on the intense passion and violence between Antony and Cleopatra that made it illicit, explicit, and completely captivating.

Would you ever see something like that at Shakeaspeare’s Globe? Hell, no! It would have the executive board spinning in so much apoplexy it could power the lighting rig for an entire Emma Rice season. But it was amazing, it was mind-blowing, and it made me see Antony and Cleopatra in a completely different way. It’s such a shame that it will probably never come to Britain and audiences will never experience Shakespeare so vividly because it’s too radical and, according to Hare, a contagious biohazard.

Indeed, there’s a high profile biennial that exists simply because those there’s a complete lack foreign theatre in the capital: the Lift Festival. Last year they brought shows like; The Hamilton Complex, which featured 13 Belgian school girls and a horse to explore young female sexuality; and Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker from Japan which completely doused the theatre rule-book in paraffin and torched it, with performers screaming down your ears and spitting seaweed-water in your face. Even Shakespeare’s Globe has a festival where it invites theatre companies from around the world to give their take on The Bard’s works. These are all groundbreaking pieces of theatre that British theatre simply doesn’t do and that people simply would not experience or challenge how they think about theatre if festivals life Lift didn’t exist. In fact, Lift’s existence, popularly, growth, and status, shows us that European directors aren’t the problem when it comes to stymieing British theatre, it’s borderline-racist coffin-dodgers like Hare that are.

Home Grown Terrorists

To claim that it’s only foreign directors that are “infecting” British theatre ignores the oiks from the local estate.

blush of dogs

Greasy characters. Anna Procter (left) , Mike Corsale (centre), and Ben Alderton (right). Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

The other problem with Hare’s UKIP-worthy tirade is that it suggest he’s at worst a xenophobe or at best a theatre hermit. There are plenty of wild and extraordinary things being done on the British fringe theatre scene that are starting to come close to the vivacity and audacity of European theatre. To claim that it’s only foreign directors that are “infecting” British theatre ignores the oiks from the local estate; Blush of Dogs was a feverish and frantic reworking of Greek tragedy; Owle Schreame’s production of Measure for Measure brought out an incredibly uncomfortable sexual violence that so many productions don’t even consider; Othello Syndrome rejigged the classic text and interspliced commentary to ask why do we always sympathise with the murderer, completely lambasting any noble romantic notion, making it a supremely awkward play about disturbing misogyny; Joan is an essential radical queer cabaret take on what we know and think about Joan d’Arc and, Balloon Theatre’s Rules of Inflation is perhaps the boldest and most challenging piece of concept theatre I saw in 2016.

Hare’s comments also suggests that anything un-British can’t be good. He seems to forget that one of our greatest and most unique British theatre traditions, pantomime, is actually heavily influenced by commedia dell’arte (Italian). Not to mention influential practitioners like Constantin Stanislavsky (Russian) and Bertolt Brecht (German) that have had huge and significant impacts on how, not just British theatre, but worldwide theatre, has flourished and developed over the centuries.

Therefore, if Hare is not the xenophobe I’m accusing him of being, then he can only be someone who really doesn’t see that much theatre at all, which hardly makes him an authority despite having several decades of plays to his name.

Mirror, Mirror

“Yes, we’re seeing less classics being done at the moment, because now is not the time for classics. Now is the time for new voices and wholly fresh perspectives.”

Tis a Pity She's a Whore

Bad romance. Scene from ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore’. Photograph: Courtesy of Adam Trigg.

Linking into this is Billington’s wail about the National Theatre’s “dereliction of duty” (with so much melodrama from critics and playwrights in the press these days, I’m surprised there’s any left for the stage). What Billington forgets is that theatre is, and always has been, a reflection of society of its time. Yes, we’re seeing less classics being done at the moment, because now is not the time for classics. Now is the time for new voices and wholly fresh perspectives. That’s not to say the classics are not important during this period, but there’s a want and need for the kind of theatre Billington is bitter about taking precedence at the National Theatre. Indeed, I’d actually say that it would be a “dereliction of duty” if the National Theatre didn’t respond to the zeitgeist and offered theatre that only an ageing elite want to see. Even Billington’s colleague Lynn Gardner, suggest we actually should be doing a lot more to include a more diverse section of society in theatre to respond to their issues and not become a liberal echo-chamber.

Billington’s opinion also show’s that he’s lost touch with the historical context of “classics”. Indeed, many of the classics we cherish were radical societal cluster-bombs of their day. Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II dealt with the taboo of homosexuality, and within the monarchy, too. John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s A Whore was wildly controversial for its sympathetic depiction of incest and it’s criticism of Christian morals, piety, and hypocrisy. Even Shakespeare can be suggested to have a political agenda: The Merchant of Venice challenged anti-semitism of the time, and The Taming of the Shrew is still being debated as to whether it praises or lambastes the patriarchy to this day.

Later than that and slightly further afield, Brecht used theatre as an overt political tool and attack the sentiment towards the bourgeois. Anton Chekhov used it to explore an unhappy and deeply philosophical realism that flew in the face of idea of theatre as entertainment. Henrik Ibsen produced damning critiques on society norms and class/gender roles that some still find difficult to watch today. Heck, even Angels in America was landmark at the time for how it dealt with depicting people during the AIDs epidemic, contrary to vitriolic public sentiment. For each play we revere as a classic now, it was a contemporary two-fingers to the establishment then. Did these trailblazing playwrights and “theatre-makers” have critics like Billington moaning about not sticking to older material back then? Probably. But they just said, “fuck ’em”, and carried on to be the established masters they’re known as today.

So to suggest that the lack of “classics” is a “dereliction of duty” is preposterous codswallop, and Billington really needs to consider whether he’s actually connected enough with not just the modern theatre scene, but historical theatre context, to really continue his tenure as one of Britain’s top critics.

Grumpy Old Men

Thank Samuel Beckett’s (Irish) left foot that these old, privileged, dutifully British white men are here to save us from a modern cosmopolitan theatrical apocalypse.

In short, what Hare and Billington are essentially saying is there’s not enough theatre about that they want to see: screw the rest of us. We don’t know what we want or should be seeing, do we? Thank Samuel Beckett’s (Irish) left foot that these old, privileged, dutifully British white men are here to save us from a modern cosmopolitan theatrical apocalypse. Or, less sarcastically, theatre is already doing what it should be doing, and existing as a reflection of society that is its very being. It’s existence in its current form shows that curmudgeons like Hare and Billington completely don’t matter and are irrelevant. So why the fuck spend time listening to them?

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