Willing To Speak Truth To Power

Three articles published over the course of the last week, by The Guardian UK, have caught my attention. The first, a review by veteran theatre critic Michael Billington, about a ‘play’ called 2071. I use the inverted commas advisedly at this point, as the piece has one actor, a scientist called Chris Rapley, who spends 70 minutes talking to the audience about climate change. Some might, and indeed have, called it a lecture, nothing more.


In his review, 2071 – urgent call for the greatest collective action in history, Billington argues otherwise:

Some will argue this is not really theatre. But the idea that theatre should be exclusively reserved for fiction has been knocked on the head by a surge of documentary dramas and verbatim plays. And Katie Mitchell, who directed both this show and Ten Billion, realises that the eye needs to be satisfied as well as the ear. Rapley sits in a chair and, without notes, talks to the audience with an astonishing calm and command of facts for 75 minutes. Meanwhile Chloe Lamford’s design presents us with swirling video images behind him that illustrate Rapley’s arguments and have a strange beauty of their own.

The play is being staged at The Royal Court in London under the directorship of Katie Mitchell, who did a similar staging two years ago with a piece entitled Ten Billion where scientist Stephen Emmott (below) spoke about global over-population and its consequences. In fact Ten Billion was given the number 10 spot in the best plays of the year, according to one newspaper.


In this podcast from the Royal Court Duncan Macmillan (co-writer), Mitchell (director) and Rapley (speaking as scientist, co-writer and performer) talk to literary manager Christopher Campbell about the play.


I’ll leave it to you to ponder whether the classification as theatre is a correct one. Mitchell and Macmillan talk further, in the second of the articles I referred to earlier, about their reasons and the processes behind verbatim theatre of this kind. Climate change play 2071 aims to make data dramatic is written by Stephanie Merritt:

“As a dramatist, I’m interested in working with text in a different way,” Macmillan explains, when I meet them during a break in rehearsals at their south London studio. “There was the formal challenge of how to express Chris’s science, and what we could bring to him as theatre-makers – not just with a different audience for those issues, but in terms of technique and how to structure the material. For example, if Chris is writing a scientific paper or delivering an academic lecture, the convention is that you begin with your finding and go on to explain it. But that’s like Hamlet avenging his father’s death in the first five minutes. The simultaneous challenge we’ve had is how to take the anger and emotion out of the issue and at the same time make the data dramatically compelling to listen to.”

The subject matter is undoubtedly emotive, but more so political and therefore ripe for the theatre – even if it is a difficult subject to stage.

I am sure that it is no coincidence that on the same day Billington’s review for 2017 was published, he also wrote a rallying piece entitled Speaking truth to power: this is the rebirth of political theatre in which he talks about the resurgence of political theatre on the British stage at the moment, 2017 included.  You can read the article yourself, but I’ll finish this post with his final paragraph which says much about the theatre I was brought up with, educated by and in which I believe passionately.

It is also something that seems part of our native bloodstream. Some years ago I was invited to take part in an international discussion of political theatre organised by the British Council in Santiago. After I had talked about the British theatre’s oppositional tradition, two French delegates treated my remarks with polite condescension. They observed that someone had recently staged a play in Paris about President Bush but that it had excited little interest. As we talked, I realised we were arguing from different premises. For my French colleagues, theatre was primarily an aesthetic discipline and something apart from life. From my entrenched Anglo-Saxon perspective, it was a vital part of life; and that inevitably embraces politics. I remain convinced to this day that among British theatre’s greatest strengths are its readiness to put our society under the microscope and its willingness to speak truth to power.

Still Streaming

89264It has been a few months since I have written about the discussions and debate surrounding the streaming of theatre, live and recorded, to cinemas, performance venues and across the web. In my last two posts on the matter, Something to Stream About and Something Else To Stream About I wrote about the experiences, arguments and concerns as they were being put forward. In the UK in the past few weeks the discussion has gathered pace again, with further written comment, the publication of a piece of research with regard to its impact on audience figures and continued experimentation with the form.

In a piece for The Guardian newspaper, Let’s stop pretending that theatre can’t be captured on screenthe highly regarded, veteran theatre critic Michael Billington wrote:

But while I remain an evangelist for live theatre, I think it’s time we stopped pretending that it offers an unreproducible event. A theatre performance can now be disseminated worldwide with astonishing fidelity. This represents…….a revolution which knocks on the head the old argument that theatre is an elitist medium aimed at the privileged few.

Following Billington’s piece, another theatre critic and editor, Andrew Haydon (who also runs the excellent blog Postcards From The Gods) wrote an article Coney’s no island: could streamed theatre let audiences call the shots? in which he talks generally about the continuing development of the form and in particular about a new show, Better Than Lifeby the company Coney, who describe themselves as:

Interactive theatre-makers….[who] weave together theatre and game design to create dynamic shows and experiences that can take place anywhere that people gather: in theatres, schools, museums, on the streets and online.

Haydon describes Better Than Life thus:

The live premise is simple: you arrive at the “secret location”, take part in a bit of audience participation and then meet Gavin, a man who has been granted the power to draw pictures of future events (a plot wittingly or unwittingly lifted from the wonky US science fiction TV show Heroes). The online premise is more complex: Coney’s stated aim is to experiment with how they might be able to let people interact with the performance even if they are not physically present. To this end, online viewers could choose which camera they watched from, interact in the site’s own chat facility and even control spotlights in the room itself.

BTL_webdesigns-17-1024x1024Now this is clearly a different beast to streaming theatre as it has been developing so far, but indicates the pace at which interactive technologies have the potential to shape the future development of theatre. Arts journalist Miriam Gillinson also wrote about her online experience watching Better Than Life, as opposed to Haydon’s ‘real-life’ viewing, in her blog post, ‘Better Than Life’ review or ‘Is there a triple click option?’. However, both seem to agree that whilst it was a form still very much in development, there was distinct and intriguing potential in the work and how it might point to the we ‘watch’ theatre in the future. To explore Coney’s work more, there is an excellent interview by Rohan Gunatillake with the company’s co-director, Annette Mees, for Native Magazine intriguingly titled Gorillas, beautiful tension & Better Than Life. In the interview, amongst other things, she explores the difference between their work and the more conventional broadcast streaming of theatre.

Coney's Early Days

Coney’s Early Days

As I said at the beginning of the post, one of the things that prompted me to revisit the streaming discussions was the publication of a survey in the UK that seems to show that the advent and growing audiences of streamed theatre is not, as some feared, having a negative effect on live audience attendance either in the capital or in the regions, as some feared. The survey was carried out by Nesta (a charity that funds innovation in the arts sciences and technology in the UK) and you can read their findings here. There is a condensed version of the findings here, courtesy of Whats On Stage

The National Theatre's Frankenstein, Jonny Lee Miller

The National Theatre’s Frankenstein, Jonny Lee Miller

Now obviously, these statistics are for the UK and they left me wondering how they would extrapolate out for international audiences of streamed and broadcast theatre. Since I last wrote about this subject and lamented the lack of broadcasts to Hong Kong, the National in the UK have at last found a cinema partner here.  Their initial foray – Frankenstein – was an immediate sellout (I was too slow) and since then, more and more broadcasts have been added with Coriolanus and The Audience begin shown multiple times in the next couple of months. They are immensely popular with Hong Kong audiences (I don’t mean just expats either) and I can see how they are creating an audience-in-waiting of theatre goers ready for their next trip to London. I could be cynical of course and comment that all of these productions have star actors with international reputations and are therefore an immediate box office draw. However, I won’t and I can’t – I am just delighted that I can now see what I consider to be some of best theatre in the world in the place I choose to call home.

I also want to a mention of another streamed event, that in a week that saw 500,000 people take to the streets of Hong Kong demanding universal suffrage, has significant resonance for me. On June 24th, The National Theatre of Scotland hosted The Great Yes, No, Don’t Know 5 Minute Theatre Show  which streamed for 24 hours, pieces of theatre lasting no longer than 5 minutes to and from around the globe.


Driven by the upcoming vote on Scottish independence from the UK, the idea was to create a democratic, dramatic response to the theme of ‘Independence’ – identity, borders, language, and national identity. You can watch some of the contributions again here. Quite rightly, many of them are from Scots making their own comment on what is to come on the 18th September, but there are also contributions from around the world. Theatre and democracy, hand in hand.

So as the experiments continue and the debates rumble on, I leave you with an article, Three Nationals, again from Native Magazine, this time by David Kettle, in which he talks to leaders in the three national theatres of the UK – The National, The National Theatre of Scotland and The National Theatre of Wales – about their digital visions. It leaves me in no doubt digital theatre broadcasting and streaming is hear to stay.