British Theatre Today: Golden Age? Near Utopia? (A Guardian recap)

In his latest post (“British theatre isn’t a utopia yet–but we’re on our way“) on the Guardian theatre blog, Michael Billington highlights the various ways British theatre has adapted to the times, reinvigorated itself, and, therefore, thrived in the past year. He points to new talent, authorship diversity more representative of Britan’s multicultural population, and timely topical plays, to list a few.

After singing the theatre’s praises, however, Billington pulls back towards the end of the piece and identifies what he calls “gaps” in the landscape that keep this period from being worthy of the appellation “Golden age,” suggesting “silver” might be a more accurate hue.   His main concern lies with the neglect of classics, other than Shakespeare:

“With the RSC’s Swan out of action for refurbishment, you realise how rare it is to see Elizabethan, Jacobean, Restoration or late 18th-century plays: a generation is growing up that has no idea how to perform, stage or even appreciate Jonson, Webster, Congreve or Sheridan. A healthy theatre is based on a balance of past and present, but our current historical amnesia suggests Shakespeare was the only dramatist before Beckett.

This particular problem is not just a British problem, but also an American one.

In a complementary post (“Is this a new golden age for British theatre?“) on the Guardian theatre blog, Mark Lawson considers why theatre (both subsidized, ie. steadily funded, and commercial) has endured during tough financial times when other genres, such as film and television have struggled. The answers he and the theatre professionals he interviewed provide run the gamut: (1) The greater artistic freedom of the theatre; (2) The theatre as a place for escape; (3) The theatre as a less expensive alternative to vacation (what he amusingly describes as “an economic anomaly”–theatre attendance by those who before perceived themselves as “too rich to go”); (4) The theatre being more authentic and theatrical, instead of clinging to the “screen envy” that has marked stage productions of the last decade.

Here is a quote to ponder by playwright Jez Butterworth, author of Jerusalem and Parlour Song (cited in Lawson’s post):

I always think,” he says, “that writers in theatre are treated like a painter. Writers in movies are treated like someone hired to paint someone’s house and, when they’ve finished, they’re expected, like house-painters, to get the fuck out.” Thoughts?


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