The National Theatre’s decision to relate ‘the story of modern Britain’ in a post-Brexit era, has sparked a debate into the involvement of theatre in political discussions. In their current project entitled Missing Conversations, the Theatre is leading interviews in various towns and cities across the UK, aimed to ignite discussion of the summer’s embarrassing decision to leave the EU. Theatre as a medium is undoubtedly influential, but the questions remains: Should the theatrical world be a platform for such contentious debates? Should we be wary of the power companies such as the National Theatre have over the minds of their audiences?
First of all, it is important to contemplate whether the National Theatre has an agenda. Funded by the Arts Council, which is noted for its pro-Brexit mind-set, it is questionable whether this show will be an actual representation of the ‘missing conversations’ between Britain’s generations and its government. Rufus Norris, the Artistic Director of the National Theatre, argues that the project was intended ‘just to gather a massive verbatim archive of what people think about where they live, where they think the power lies, what they think of British values, what their values are.’ In essence, the project is ‘to listen’ and provide a neutral discussion of opinions and events, although it will be interesting to see if this is the reality.
The National Theatre has a history of exploring highly topical and contentious issues. In 2012, they staged Timon of Athens which was based around the economic crash of 2008. Poignant and resounding, Simon Russell Beale’s portrayal of Timon was a deeply moving exploration of the flaws in a capitalist system, something which strongly resounded with its audience. Moreover, their 2014 production of King Lear was influenced by Gadhafi’s dictatorship and ultimate fall from power, another contentious issue in the wake of the Arab Spring. The theatre also stages regular discussion panels and workshops on all manner of topics. I recently attended a dance workshop on the show Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom that discussed the experiences of African Americans in the 20th century. Perhaps then it is the fact that Missing Conversations is directly confronting the issue that makes it so controversial. Rather than masking the issue with a shroud of Shakespearean lingo, or using it as a feature for a panel discussion, the National Theatre is taking Brexit directly to stage.
In reality, theatre really could not be a more effective tool for such an exploration, as it continually reflects and reveals the political anxieties of individuals within a given society. Pivotal works such as Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus were effective in examining contemporary religious or social conceptions, with Marlowe highlighting the alienation of the Catholic Church in Elizabethan England. In a post-Brexit society, the growing feelings of resentment for foreigners or the nostalgia for a united Europe are topics that should undoubtedly be discussed. In tackling such a political topic, the National Theatre could raise unexpected questions about future politics, whilst challenging their audience to contemplate these issues, even their place in Europe.
Like any piece of theatre, it will be important to watch Missing Conversations without any preconceptions. The National Theatre’s history of successful productions indicates that they would be up to the challenge of discussing the reasons behind Brexit, and the consequences it has wrought on British society. Although it will not provide any reconciliation, I hope it will shed light on a heated debate that will inevitably last decades.
Illustration: Faye Chua