Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The Racial Papers – Slight Return (part two)

In yesterday’s first half to this blog, I deliberately left two elephants in the room of my argument:

The first elephant is the question of how one defines a play’s nationality.

The second elephant is what we mean when we say “national” theatre.

Until I read the Lynn Nottage interview, I’m not sure the first question had ever occurred to me before. But once it had, it seemed to keep growing as a question. Up until now, if asked the nationality of a play, I’d have probably given the nationality of its author. As such, her Pulitzer-winning Ruined is an American play. Except, that if Nottage self-identifies as an African-American, goes to Africa to research her play, and then writes a play about Africa, does that make it an “African-American play”?

My unease originates from the fact that when I was growing up enlightened thinking on How Not To Be Racist started with the phrase “They were born here, they’re as British as you or me”. This was pre-“Cultural Diversity”, “celebrating difference” and Etc. This was “Inclusion”, I think. One big, lovely, not-racist, “English” (then serving as a culturally-insensitive synonym for “British”) group-hug. The basic idea then was that we ignored “difference” (i.e. skin colour, accents, etc.), and were all meant to respect each other. That seemed in keeping with the wider idea of what “the British” were meant to be like. We were meant to be decent, cricketing folks (which, back when the majority of immigrants came from India/Pakistan or the “West Indies”, excluded no one). As such, everything produced within a country by people born there, or who had settled there, would be uncomplicatedly seen as “British”. Perhaps I was being told the wrong things, but that is what my impression of what nice people were meant to think.

Perhaps this simplistic former explanation of mine wants a bit of looking at. After all, the language a play is written in often tells you little. Plays written in English could be English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, American, Australian, Canadian or from New Zealand. Plays written in German could be German, Austrian, Swiss, or potentially, given the way Europe’s boundaries have shifted, could have been written by a German citizen in German, in the German city Danzig before 1945 – now Gdansk in Poland. What nationality would that play have? And what if it was set in, oh, I don’t know, Vilnius when it was occupied by Poland, or something?

Not that he was a playwright, but I was surprised to learn – much more recently than isn’t embarrassing – that Kafka wrote all his books in German. I mean, I’d only read them in translation, and knew that he lived in Prague, so I just assumed that they were written in Czech. Fair assumption, I’d have thought, but no. Wrong. So, does that make him a German writer? I mean, literally it does. He was *writing* in *German* - that makes him a “German writer” by definition. But the fact that he did so in Prague and the fact that his writing is held by the Czechs to be exemplary of their culture... And let’s not even get started on the genre of plays in English (I nearly called them “English plays” there) christened “French farces”.

On the other hand, I have a Lithuanian playwright friend who once said that his primary motivation for writing plays was to reassert Lithuanian as a language following the Soviet occupation. Much the same sort of sentiment accompanies literary endeavour in Poland, parts of the former Yugoslavia and etc., where the assertion of the national language, of a national identity, is a matter of rehabilitation, of restoration. Writing a play in “English”, meanwhile, says virtually nothing about its origin, save for perhaps a few quirks of spelling and dialectal variants on words like “pavement”, “underground” (as in metro) and “flat” (as in apartment).

This elephant/question occurred to me really when considering the nature of the second elephant – what we mean by “national theatre”.

In short - if Lynn Nottage’s play is a play about Africa, researched in Africa, written in English by an American (or African-American. Whichever she wants) why should it be even the slightest matter of surprise that it isn’t being staged at the National Theatre of Great Britain?

This is partly the question Andrew Field raises in the comments under part one:
“The NT is the National Theatre and its funding, profile, building and everything else about it reflects its status *as a national theatre*. As a consequence it absolutely does have a responsibility to be more 'national' in scope than other theatres. A responsibility to encompass more, to accommodate more, to challenge and to inspire, to do things that only it can do with the funding and space and profile that it has.”

I do agree with the general thrust of this argument, but what I didn’t address yesterday, and what Field also doesn’t really touch upon above, is what we’re meaning by “National” here. Or rather, what purpose that word serves in the title of this institution. As far as I see it, there are two basic options for a “National” theatre: either it is a theatre *of* the nation, or it is the theatre *for* the nation. At its best, I’d say the NT (as it feels so much less oppressive to call it) does both.

*For* is reasonably simple, but what does *of* mean in practice?

But Field is also raising a wider point: “Form is as important as content, as you well know and it's no good being a thousand miles wide if you're half a metre deep.”

I suspect, knowing him and knowing the work that he has championed though Forest Fringe venture – and indeed, has championed overseas for the “British Council” (another interestingly National-sounding term) – what he’s particularly interested in is the normative aspect that putting the word “National” in front of what is our best funded non-opera-producing theatre (after all, the venues in which operas are produced are also “theatres”, as are some places where films are shown (cf. Movie Theater).

In short, by calling one building “the National Theatre” is there not an extent to which that building will then go on, in a way, to partially define what this nation understands theatre to be?

I think the answer must be both yes and no – and, for the record, I think “half a metre” is a bit harsh, even if I do understand the point he’s making; there are certainly sorts of work, which can (*should*?) be defined as theatre, that never appear at the NT. But let’s not start discussing “What Is Theatre?”

I notice in the two options I’ve suggested four paras above, I missed out the third option traditionally linked to those first two I’ve suggested: theatre made “*by* the nation”.

It’s just struck me, that this is perhaps the most significant feature of NT productions. In short, irrespective of a text’s provenance, they tend to be directed by “British” directors and acted by “British” actors. I keep saying “British”, although the question of what *nation* the National Theatre is the national theatre *of* is also interesting.

With the recent establishment of both National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre of Wales, does this make the building on the South Bank (and, by extension, its tours, West End transfers, and outlying operations) the National Theatre of England and Northern Ireland? (I mention Northern Ireland with the greatest of trepidation, and already wish I hadn’t). After all, if there is an NTScotland and an NTWales, does this make the NT like Parliament across the river in Westminster? Sort of *speaking for* all four elements of the “United Kingdom”, while at the same time devolving powers and responsibilities to these other national companies/assemblies? Leaving that tangent there, and returning to the main thread – and leaving aside Field’s questions of whether the *sort* of theatre the NT seems to create for a second – let’s go back to the nationality of plays (or texts) and productions.

Another striking feature of the NT, now I think about it, is that it basically never imports *productions* (or directors, and very few actors) from abroad. So, in that sense, we get an idea of one way in which the theatre is national. Everything there is “home-made”. Fair enough, perhaps. London has the Barbican which does an admirable job of importing theatre from abroad. It has the Old Vic to import copiously from America now that it’s under Kevin Spacey, and perhaps the Young Vic most notably to import directors from Europe (although that plays only the smallest part in their programming).

So, what the NT stages is extant texts, from anywhere and everywhere; old and newish, new commissions – mostly from British writers, a smattering of in-house devised work; and the occasional transfer from a regional theatre (cf. The Pitman Painters or the current Spring/Horizon double bill), or the odd production from an extant company (cf. Tara Arts’ The Black Album, Complicite’s Measure for Measure, Kneehigh’s A Matter of Life and Death or the sort-of Punchdrunk collaboration on Every Good Boy Deserves Favour). It also had that link-up with Shunt, and actually gets in a remarkable range of international work for its Watch This Space outdoor season.

And, its choices of text seem to be pretty remarkable for their eclecticism and internationalism. Yes, granted they are choices of *text*, for the most part, and granted, it is at this level where the NT might be seen to be perhaps holding back ideas of all the things that “theatre” might mean - because it can still be seen as primarily “text-led” rather than, with the exception of Katie Mitchell, “director-led”. So it does still *seem* to propagate a very particular model of making work.

And, this is in fact a way of working which seems largely peculiar to this island. Well, no, that’s not accurate, but the presentation of works “as written” or “as intended by the writer” rather than, for the most part, “staged by” or “interpreted by” a director is more British/Anglophone than it is European.

I suppose what both the elephants I’ve addressed here encompass, is the question of whether there is something “national” about the way we make theatre, write plays, tell stories, even how we gather together to watch them. And, beyond that, whether this is somehow intrinsic to some sort of “national character” – which strikes me as deeply unlikely – or as some manifestation of what various commonly experienced external social forces collectively produce – our pre-existing conceptions of ourselves, being replayed to us, amplified several times over if the words on the outside of the building, even if only subliminally, are inviting us to experience these reproductions as part of some sort of sense of collective identity.

As such, as a closing thought, I wonder if, after all this, whether the National Theatre ends up reflecting, endorsing, perpetuating, or challenging any of these ideas, and whether all four contradictory positions aren’t all part of its curiously unclear job description.

...of course, the real reason the National exists is for its excellently stocked bookshop :-)


Ian Shuttleworth said...

"I mention Northern Ireland with the greatest of trepidation, and already wish I hadn't" - damn right, especially since by that point you've already excluded it by referring to "the National Theatre of Great Britain" rather than "...of the United Kingdom" :-)

I'll give you another element to throw into the mix as well: it's stopped using it as an element of its common name, but it is still the *Royal* National Theatre - and that's not just grandiosity of nomenclature; you can't use the term unless you've been given a royal warrant. What, then, does *that* mean in terms of obligations, representation, accountability?

Ian Shuttleworth said...

A further thought: English musing about nationality isn't as developed as that of other, er, nations because England has had a long period of untroubled, unquestioned and largely unquestionable definitions of nationality (it's easy when you're an island nation), and it's really only in the last half-century and particularly quarter-century that those have become problematic.

And I am here being specific about the English, in as much as a significant component of the English sense of nationality is not caring about the other home countries, simply assuming ownership of them and all their best qualities and blithely brushing them away whenever even remotely inconvenient.

See, for instance, the fact that otherwise serious and intelligent people get quite vexed about the East Lothian question, as if the English were an oppressed people in the British Parliament by dint of all those Scottish and Welsh MPs voting on matters that only affect England. I mean, England has 83.6% of the UK population but only 81.9% of the parliamentary seats! Oh, get a life. Does anyone ever complain that the laws on murder are largely decided by people who'll never kill anyone?

But I digress...

Andrew Field said...

Lordy. If you believed only what you read on the internet I would sound PROPER CHIPPY about the National Theatre.

I'm not, honestly.

It's simply, as you touch on above, that the National does to a degree serve as a synecdoche for all Theatre for a lot of people. To that end I think its right that we have these open discussions about what the National is and how it does what it does. That discourse has the potential not simply to energise the wider theatrical ecology, but what people in a broader sense consider to be theatre's place in their lives and their communities.

One of my problems with the architecture of the building itself is its division of front end and back end and the way this articulates itself in how the theatre runs. Unless you are the mighty Andrew Haydon (*wink*) and are able to call up friends and acquaintances who work inside the building you'd never have any idea how those decisions are made, or by whom or why. I'm quite sure that the National has had internal conversations about its programming obligations or the nature of that building and its limitations but how can we ever feel a part of that dialogue? How can we even know its taking place?

It'd be nice to see the National feeling confident and comfortable with engaging in (and even enabling) these conversations to take place more publicly. To allow itself to be the centre not just of an industry, but of a community.