The Call for an English National Theatre

Whenever I announce suddenly in conversation that I think we ought to have an English National Theatre (because that’s what I do), I am given a look which suggests the listener believes me to be in desperate need of medical attention. “Haven’t you seen that massive Soviet structure on the South Bank?” they seem to be saying, “The one which is called the National Theatre?” I smile. “English” I repeat, “We need an English National Theatre”. If you haven’t guessed, the key word is English.

As of next year, it will be 50 years since the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was founded. Hooray. Half a century of one of the leading theatre companies in the world producing top-class work. It’s certainly something to celebrate. The year after that, however, Scotland is due to hold a referendum on independence, meaning the very entity which the South Bank building represents, Great Britain, will be all but nonexistent.

For, while Scotland and Wales have been undergoing a redefining of national values over the past couple of decades (ever since devolution began), the notion of Englishness has been pretty much inseparable from ideas of Britishness. And as Britain begins to disolve, we in England will be forced to decide on our national ideals and the way our political and social lives will have to be restructured to create stability.

First, let’s destroy the notion that “English nationalist” is a dirty word; though it has connotations of the EDL and far-right groups, to be an English nationalist means to look forward to a separate English nation which does not impose its own national identity on other members of the United Kingdom (see: pretty much anything written by George Orwell). It is not an aggressive stance but one which looks inwards and attempts to separate things which are English from things which are British.

As support for an independent England (or, at the very least, an English parliament) grows, it becomes ever clearer that a space to represent the new England theatrically is necessary. To help us decide how best to implement an English National Theatre, we can look towards other national theatres in the British Isles and their respective missions.

The Southbank venue “aims constantly to re-energize the great traditions of the British stage and to expand the horizons of audiences and artists alike. It aspires to reflect in its repertoire the diversity of the nation’s culture”. The general notion that “British” can be transposed with “English” is accurate here; perhaps I’m missing something but not one of the plays I’ve seen performed at the National has been performed according to Welsh or Scottish ideas or techniques. Most of what Nick Hytner has done in recent years has either been internationally based or very clearly English (One Man Two Guv’nors and The Habit of Art being clear examples). There is clearly an appetite for English plays, but we are fooling ourselves if we believe that the NT is producing work which can speak to the whole of Britain.

The National Theatre of Scotland wishes to “create theatre on a national and international scale that is contemporary, confident and forward-looking”, whilst the Abbey in Dublin hopes to “Sustain and re-imagine the repertoire of Irish plays”. The Lyric in Belfast wishes to create shows which “are truly indigenous products of Northern Ireland” and the National Theatre of Wales “creates bold, invigorating theatre in the English language, rooted in Wales, with an international reach.” It is clear, then, that all of the nations of Britain have a national theatre rooted in the country it represents which hopes to encourage debate about that particular nation.

Except England. Granted, we have two near-misses in the English Touring Theatre and the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, but the former merely uses the word “England” to demonstrate its location whilst the latter is more interested in “finding, developing, and producing writers from all over the world” than its home territory. Aside from these two examples, there is no theatre in England today interested in specifically England and its identity. As Britain and the last remnants of Empire begin to collapse, this must be rectified if the theatre scene in this country is to continue to be healthy.

All very well diagnosing the problem, but what of the cure? What I propose is little more than a rebranded National Theatre (crucially still with a remit to produce international work; if we are to have any hope of redefining our nation we must see ourselves in context), with a change from “of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” to “of England”. This new title will shift the focus of the work produced and allow dramatists and directors a different space in which to breathe. Naturally, Henry V would come up in the first few years, but the Henry VI plays feel more apt for gaining a sweep of an England struggling to define itself. The closest any playwright has come to writing a particularly English play in the past few years is Jez Butterworth with Jerusalem, and by the time this proposed rebranding has occurred a new production would be timely. Alongside these two projects would sit a number of smaller plays about English life by both young and old playwrights interested in examining those character traits we deem to be “British” and sifting through to find the habits which are specific to England (Polly Stenham and Arnold Wesker would be perfect candidates). To finish off the season a Three Kingdomsstyle (yes I’m still going on about it) collaboration between English and international practitioners would consolidate this new theatre’s place on the world stage. By finding a new context in which to create theatre, then, a perceptible renaissance would inevitably occur to reflect the new country inhabited by practitioners. To suggest an Artistic Director for this establishment would split opinion too much, but we’re in the fortunate position of being spoilt for choice at the moment so this point isn’t too problematic.

This post will undoubtably be criticised for being too patriotic and somewhat reactionary, but the search for a new England and the desire to have its existence staged and debated is the complete opposite; in less than two years, Great Britain as we know it may have collapsed, meaning we must begin to look ahead to how our nation will look at that time. The “British” prefix attached to many of our great institutions will become obsolete, and if we’re not careful a long period of confusion about our nationality will follow. The theatre, that most forward-looking of art forms, must lead the way, giving a stage on which to rehearse the blueprint for our new country. And only then will we have a truly National Theatre.

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3 thoughts on “The Call for an English National Theatre”

  1. Interesting article but ultimately I’m not sure you ever really justify the real ‘need’ for one. The productions you mention; Henry V for example, is currently playing at Hampstead, and there will be Jude Law’s version in 2014 in the West End. Jerusalam will be revived over and over again because its perhaps the first true masterpiece of the 21st centure, it doesn’t need an ‘English’ National Theatre to put this on. Henry VI will no doubt receive a brand new staging by the RSC at some point during Doran’s reign. Similarly the Royal Court seems to already commission plays about the English experience ‘The Acid Test’ ‘Love, Love, Love’ as just two fairly recent examples. Sure who knows if that will still happen when Vickie Featherstone takes over but right now under Dominic Cooke a lot of the plays are an attack on the ‘English’ establishment.

    Maybe other countries; Wales and Scotland need a ‘national’ instttute because they are much less represented on our (in which I mean London-apologies for the metropolitan bias) stages. But the work you propose this English National Theatre should do doesn’t seem particularly removed from the work we already see night in, night out in our theatres.

    If there should be a call for any theatre perhaps we should be focusing on long term ensembles of the sort created by the Berliner Ensemble, or the Olivier era National Theatre company. But thats another story!

    1. Thanks for this Kris. I understand that the kind of work I’m proposing isn’t exactly very different from the kind we see regularly anyway (though I wholeheartedly champion a Berliner Ensemble-style idea) but I think the context in which a work is performed makes a lit of difference, hence the necessity to shift the focus from British to English over the coming years. Much of the work produced at the moment may be about England and it’s establishment, but it is too often referred to as British when that isn’t the case. Perhaps my proposed season was a bit of a detour from the overall argument but I thought it necessary to answer that question before it was asked to demonstrate that we don’t necessarily need a change of working ethos, only a change of discourse. Hope that makes sense.

  2. Grat post, Dan! I believe that if there were to be an English National Theatre, I believe its main focus should be not reviving those plays that define quintesential “Englishness” but taking greater responsibility for touring work, working with and within communities and reflecting the different aspects of life in the country.

    Adopting the Scottish and Welsh theatres’ roaming templates and freeing themselves from the shackles of the Southbank would be the way to go. It makes me cringe that their Facebook page is listed as ‘National Theatre London’.

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