We live, to put it mildly, in volatile times. No one knows for sure where this country will be in six months’, six weeks’ or possibly even six days’ time. At such a period, the arts become ever more vitally necessary. At the very least, they offer a beacon of sanity, and it becomes a relief to immerse oneself in a book, a play, a movie, an artwork or a piece of music. You only had to scan our paper’s recent list of the century’s Top 50 works in the various art forms to realise just how much exciting creativity there is around. We’re lucky to be living in the age of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film There Will Be Blood, and TV’s The Sopranos, which all came out on top of their respective categories.
But theatre is my province and I am struck by the medium’s ability to combine reassuring continuity with progressive change. This takes many forms, but two events in the past week provided examples of the latter. Watching Athol Fugard’s Master Harold … and the Boys at the Lyttelton Theatre, I was moved to see as many black as white faces in the audience. When the National opened in 1976 a Tom Phillips poster proclaimed “The new National Theatre is Yours” and I felt at last that promise was close to being fulfilled.
No less significant was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s decision to sever its financial ties with BP. This was a reaction not just to protests by stars such as Mark Rylance and Miriam Margolyes, but to 6,000 young supporters who claimed that BP’s sponsorship was a barrier to their engagement with the company at a time of climate emergency. On this subject, the young speak with inspiring clarity.
The climate crisis, however, is a topic which the theatre has long been addressing. Caryl Churchill in Far Away and Escaped Alone envisaged an apocalyptic future in which the natural world was thrown into perturbation. Steve Waters wrote two plays, On The Beach and Resilience, that foresaw rising sea levels and coastal flooding. Lucy Kirkwood in The Children memorably examined the poisoned legacy we are passing on to future generations.
I cite these plays as examples not of the theatre’s special virtue but as proof that, in my lifetime, it has always been ahead of the game; or at least ahead of other media in tackling the issues of the moment. There are exceptions to the rule. Although he is essentially a theatre animal, James Graham’s TV film, Brexit: An Uncivil War, provided the most comprehensive account so far of how the Vote Leave campaign achieved its questionable triumph: the only downside to Graham’s film, as someone recently observed, is that it may have boosted Dominic Cummings’s ego rather than forced him to re-examine his tactics. But, although we still await the great Brexit stage play, the theatre is invariably on the ball when it comes to confronting the big issues. The Tricycle Theatre, under Nicolas Kent, mounted a series of momentous tribunal plays. David Hare has constantly looked behind the headlines as in his landmark play about the buildup to the Iraq war, Stuff Happens. And a host of writers, from Winsome Pinnock in Leave Taking to Natasha Gordon in Nine Night, have explored the dilemmas facing the children of immigrant families.
Theatre’s great asset is that it can afford to take risks. Films take an age to finance and set up. Television, despite the shining example of the Graham Brexit film, is hedged with caution. What television can do is broadcast theatre’s discoveries. I was reminded of this recently watching BBC4’s showing of David Ireland’s play, Cyprus Avenue. This is a devastating, blackly comic piece of work showing a devout Ulster Protestant’s implacable conviction that his baby granddaughter is Gerry Adams. It is a brilliant, startling and ultimately violent play about the folly of any kind of purblind sectarianism – not just Northern Irish – and contained one of the great performances of recent years by Stephen Rea. But, while it was thrilling to see the piece being transmitted on television, I doubt whether it would have stood the ghost of a chance if Ireland had first offered it to a TV company.
I am not simply talking up the theatre because it is my bread and butter. I genuinely believe that it is more adventurous than other media and is usually in tune with the times. But it’s not perfect. I was recently doing a Q&A with Judi Dench at the Ashcroft Theatre, Croydon and was asked by the chair about the current state of theatre.
I praised to the skies the variety and vivacity of new drama but suggested that classic theatre, Shakespeare especially, was going through a bad patch: the repertoire was narrowing, there was little relish for language, directors favoured a breezy populism. My off-the-cuff remarks sparked a news story in the Stage and have prompted a large number of emails. Clearly I am not alone in worrying about the classics.
But what of the future? Where is theatre heading? As I said earlier, prediction is a mug’s game, since we don’t know whether we are heading for post-Brexit meltdown or the sunlit uplands envisaged by Redwood and Rees-Mogg. But, risking my neck, I will hazard a few guesses. One is that the communal pleasure of theatre will become ever more seductive in an age of atomised, hi-tech isolation. Another is that the theatre will increasingly oscillate between the epic and the intimate: the massive, large-scale experience and the claustrophobically intense. Finally, I would suggest that, even if we face a future of ongoing uncivil war, of creeping autocracy in government, of disruption of all the things that we take for granted in daily life, someone, somewhere will be still be putting on a play about it.
• This article was amended on 7 October 2019 to correct the spelling of Nicolas Kent’s first name.