The British Council and the Power of Theatre

Graham Sheffield CBE has been Global Director Arts for the British Council since 2011. He is responsible for leading the worldwide arts strategy and programme across the British Council’s 116 country operation. From 1995–2010 Graham was Artistic Director of the Barbican Centre in London. Under his directorship, the Barbican developed into one of the most innovative, dynamic and respected arts centres, with an award-winning international programme across the arts spectrum. In the last six years he has driven a major expansion and reshaping of the arts programme at the British Council, defining a new vision, developing new arts specialists in the global network, planning major extended seasons of work in Brazil, China, Qatar, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, Korea and South Africa, as well as responding ambitiously to social and political change in the Middle East, Gulf, North Africa and South Asia. Under Graham’s leadership, the arts programme has grown in size and impact, and has attracted significant investment and partner funding: to launch a Cultural Skills programme, expand the work within the Creative Industries sector, develop a digital arts programme and refresh and enlarge the British Council’s internationally renowned Art Collection—a vital contributor to work overseas in cultural relations. A recent development is leading a £30m Cultural Protection Fund on behalf of the ministry to help protect important world heritage sites under threat. Also, he has introduced the Council’s first ever post in computer games. Graham graduated in Music from Edinburgh University and worked as a Radio 3 producer at the BBC for 12 years on classical music, opera, features and documentaries. From there he moved to the Southbank Centre as Music Projects Director for 5 years, founding the world-renowned Meltdown Festival in 1993.  He also served as CEO of the West Kowloon Cultural District, Hong Kong in 2010. He was Chairof the Royal Philharmonic Society (2007–2010), and consulted to the new Luminato Festival of Arts and Creativity in Toronto.  From 2004–2006 Graham was Chair of the International Society of Performing Arts and a council member of Arts Council England, London (2002–2008). In 2014 Graham took up a new role as Chair of the UK’s largest music charity, Help Musicians UK and joined the Board of Rambert. He was awarded CBE in the 2010 New Year’s Honours’ list for services to the arts and was made Chevalier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in 2005. He is an honorary Doctor of Arts at City University, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Graham was honoured in January 2015 by ISPA with the International Citation of Merit for lifetime achievement in the arts.

The British Council was set up in 1934 as a response to the rise of Fascism in Europe: it achieved its independent charter (at arm’s length from government) in 1940, and the mission from that year still resonates, as we strive “to create a friendly knowledge and understanding between the peoples of the UK and the wider world”, by making a positive contribution to the (now) 115 countries we work in, and in doing so making a lasting difference to the UK’s international standing, prosperity and security. In short, though the term is not one I am drawn to, we are in effect the UK’s instrument of “soft power”. (I feel that “soft power” rather diminishes the impact—even though I realise what is meant.)

Theatre became an important part of the British Council’s mission in the immediate aftermath of World War Two.[1] We were eager to return to Europe (strange turnaround from just over half the UK now that wants “out” of Europe—another topic, another day!), and by the mid-1940s had reopened many of our former offices closed during the conflict and extended into new countries for us, such as France and Austria. In a continent fractured by extreme ideologies and huge loss of life, the British Council set about disseminating British culture. In the years immediately after the war, the Sadler’s Wells Ballet Company visited Paris, Ghent, Brussels, Vienna, Prague, Warsaw, Poznan, Malmo and Oslo. And under the auspices of Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and Sybil Thorndike, the Old Vic Theatre Company went to Paris, Brussels, Australia and New Zealand. In her history of the British Council, Frances Donaldson remarked “it is doubtful the British taxpayer is, or ever has been, aware of how much he owes these two companies in international renown”. Over the same period, the British Council was instrumental in the creation of the first Edinburgh International Festival in 1947. Today of course, the Edinburgh Festivals are the world’s largest arts festivals and a bulwark of the Scottish economy.

Figure 1: British Council Building in New Delhi, India

These days the work of the British Council, across the spectra of English language learning, higher education, civil society and the arts, is about a lot more than simply “showcasing” the best of British, whether in theatre or in any of the myriad of art forms we work in: our own kind of Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk, if you like! We don’t act as a touring agency for one thing; most of our work is done in partnership with others, convening, connecting, yes funding too, but in a much more nuanced way, looking at cultural relations as of genuinely mutual and reciprocal benefit.

With all the turbulence and uncertainty in the world today, it’s arguable that the role of the arts, and theatre in particular, is even more important to any country’s engagement in international relations—the UK in particular, since our creative sector is so strong.

When I started at the British Council, I soon saw that we needed to amplify the work we were doing across the arts—but again, particularly in theatre—to make a difference in society, in effect to advance the cause of social change. This wasn’t and isn’t about crude instrumentalism, it is about acknowledging (as we’ve been discussing) that theatre has a power, has an impact in the social arena to create a platform for positive social change—in attitudes to women, to racism, to intolerance of minorities, to health and well-being.

To my mind, artists in the UK are more engaged in such fields than at any time since the late 1960s—more “up for” direct social engagement on the pressing issues of the day through drama and the arts. And as the UK’s international cultural relations organization, my colleagues and I thought it is imperative that we expanded our remit beyond showcasing into these more challenging and controversial areas.

In the deployment of theatre in such matters, it’s most often about attempting to change people’s attitudes within a so-called safe space, catalysing change in individuals through the directness and emotional power of the work. As my colleague in New Zealand, Ingrid Leary, said in relation to the project “Stages of Change” she is directing in theatre in the Solomon Islands, tackling crippling issues of domestic violence towards women: “the key was inspiration through theatre, not just informing in a workshop setting, so that the impact was lived with and absorbed, rather than just learned.”

Figure 2: Stages of Change, Solomon Islands

The project, much respected for the changes it has brought, addressed not only women’s issues but also broad cultural taboos—sexual, gender and religious. It raised awareness, which led to behaviour change. And it was led by a local Melanesian (not imposed from outside), which meant that the women could quickly establish trust, and grow their own confidence. It was a power of collaboration, establishing a listening environment, a safe space. The theatre was “physical” with local props (echoes of Artaud here), so there was a low risk of mistranslation or misunderstanding.

Evidence of policy change also comes from that project: women now are seen and heard more in public, and the project is credited by the EU funders for having contributed to new legislation—the Solomon’s Family Protection Act 2014. Ingrid also considers it important in increased international connectivity for the Solomon Islands government in the South Pacific. Several women have visited other Pacific Festivals and stages.

Figure 3: Exhibit B, Brett Bailey

Theatre is a place to open up discussions about identity, history and race. Take Exhibit B, a live art/theatre installation created by white South African director Brett Bailey, with his multi-talented and multi-racial cast. It was a unique hybrid of performance and exhibition, looking at themes of racism and Europe’s colonial history through a startling set of 13 fixed installations peopled by the brave cast.

I saw it in the elegant surroundings of Edinburgh University’s old library, a noble architectural articulation of eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy, somewhat at odds with the challenging material … decidedly NON-enlightened! It was a powerful combination, and one which had received plaudits, as well (yes) as sparking debate. I found it unbearably moving, especially considering the roles willingly taken on by the enterprising cast.

It was based on the concept of “human zoos” and ethnographic displays popularised (not SO long ago) at the end of the nineteenth century. In each tableau, the audience (who see it in small numbers, walking around as if IN a museum) is confronted by a black performer, who casts an unsettling, silent gaze upon the viewer. Utterly compelling! The reviews used words such as “moving, vital, disturbing, unbearable, essential” not only as a political statement relating to the past and European guilt but also as a compelling piece of theatre.

Imagine my dismay and anger when it was prevented from opening at the Barbican (my former venue) later in 2014 by a group of ill-informed protestors, using violence and threats. I was particularly angered, since I had worked so hard at the Barbican to build its reputation for progressive international theatre—as well as presenting several excellent shows by Brett Bailey. The protestors (who hadn’t even seen it!) called it an act of “complicit racism”, which was about as stupid a criticism as you could invent—it was precisely the opposite! And they had no right to prevent other free-minded adults from seeing it, judging it and responding to it. A shameful episode all round: bad for freedom of expression, bad for the Barbican’s reputation, unfortunate for Bailey and his cast. But you can’t deny THAT piece of theatre packs a powerful punch, whichever side you are on.

Theatre also has a role in empowering marginalised groups. According to figures from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the conflict in Syria has forced almost five million people to leave their homes and seek refuge in other countries. The majority of these are women and children, living in neighbouring countries, with little prospect of returning home in the near future. In 2013, Refuge Productions brought together 60 Syrian refugee women living in Jordan to adapt and perform Euripides’ anti-war tragedy, The Women of Troy, as well as Antigone by Sophocles. The director was Syrian and they worked with an Egyptian author in a contemporary version of the stories.

Figure 4: The Syrian Trojan Women Project

We also supported them through the British Council, and I was privileged to meet some of them at a regional arts meeting in Beirut a year ago, and see documentary footage of some of their work. They’d never acted before, and the extraordinary piece of theatre they produced weaves together their own stories of life as refugees and their experience of war and terrible loss with the ancient Greek text.

One of them said to me “the brother (Polynices) buried outside the walls of Thebes without a proper funeral in Antigone is MY brother—that’s what the drama means to me”. So these were real people inserted, as it were, into an ancient drama, as if part of yourself was inhabiting the old story—that story was a framework for their narrative … a somehow cathartic experience for each of them. They weren’t acting … for them it was real!

The women spoke too of how their theatre work—culturally very unusual for a Muslim woman, changed forever how their husbands and families saw them … sometimes for the better, sometimes not. But they felt emancipated: that was the important factor.

Figure 5: David Greig, Artistic Director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre

In a similar vein, David Greig returned to Aeschylus autumn of 2017 at the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. He’s directed a new version of Aeschylus’s The Suppliant Women (with an amateur community group and reconstituted authentic Greek Aulos music).[2] It was a chillingly familiar tale of refugee women seeking political asylum in Greece from war in the Middle East—who says history doesn’t repeat itself?!

Figure 6: The Suppliant Women, Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh

Theatre can also tackle subjects that are considered “taboo”, a bit like my earlier Solomon Islands example. Take a play called Roadkill, about human trafficking, based on the experiences of a young woman trafficked to Scotland from Benin City. It was first produced at the Edinburgh Festival in 2013 and was part of the British Council’s Edinburgh Showcase, a biennial platform of contemporary UK performance selected by us and external advisers for the Fringe and ultimately, we hope, for international dates. I’m pleased to say that, as a direct result, the play toured to the US, another country blighted by this serious issue. The performance experience was powerful—an audience of around 25, driven off to a dilapidated house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, installed in a small living room, where the action took place right at your feet. Impossible not to be moved, impossible not to feel empathy, impossible not to emerge with your mind and attitude changed to the plight of such women.

Figure 7: Nirbhaya by Yaël Farber

Exploring similar themes was South African director Yael Farber’s acclaimed play Nirbhaya—the story of the young Delhi woman who was gang-raped and left for dead. This searing story premiered in Edinburgh a year or so ago and won the coveted Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, given to a Fringe show which raises awareness of human rights. We were able to support a tour of Nirbhaya to India, despite nervousness from the UK Foreign Office, and it met with a similar reaction to the global problem of sexual violence: how can societies across the world tackle it?

William Burdett Coutts, the producer, says: “the message behind Nirbhaya is attached to real life”. For him, a piece of theatre like this is so much more relevant than yet another version of, say, As You Like It! In Yael’s vivid production, “theatre meets church” and leaves something emblazoned on your mind in our ephemeral world. It won’t change society overnight, but it keeps on addressing the message in a process of attitudinal change and tolerance.

That’s political in a way, and it’s difficult to remove yourself from politics in theatre these days. Some directors have more directly engaged with political controversy through the medium of “verbatim” or documentary theatre. One of the finest exponents of this remains Nick Kent, for many years Artistic Director of a small, but radical theatre in North London called the Tricycle.

Perhaps, his greatest achievement (though he has many documentary theatre credits to his name on issues from the Nuremberg Trials to the Srebrenica Massacres) as well as his greatest success was probably around the Great Game, a series of 12 half-hour plays about 170 years of foreign intervention in Afghanistan from 1842 to 2010—from the Anglo-Afghan Wars, through the Russians, the CIA, the coming of the Taliban, Operation “Enduring Freedom, reconstruction, Western aid and the continuing insurgency”. It brought together a focus on foreign policy (British, European and American) through political debate and discourse. Premiering in 2009 in London, it then toured the US, even to the Pentagon itself, where it was seen as an educational tool for the US military and officialdom.

Nick has the courage to say that, even though he was against the UK/US invasion at the time, working on the plays led him to change his perspective, in that he came to see that the removal of the Taliban was the lesser of two evils at that time. He’s now working on a piece about the radicalisation of young Muslims in Tower Hamlets (a borough in London); even in this, he says that the power of the living research leads him to a deeper understanding of racism in the UK and how it affects society—and has led him to a more tolerant view of Islam. That’s power in action if you like: but Nick insists on only using verbatim text, whereas another strongly political British playwright like David Hare adds fiction to the mix to support his view of the situation, which, to my mind, weakens the audience’s ability to make up its own mind; it’s all too directional.

“Tragic catharsis”—that’s what an audience goes through in such drama and with the Greeks. Director and actor Fiona Shaw refers to this as “the rhythm of theatre”—when everything is right, she says, “the heartbeat of the audience matches that of the players, that’s what makes theatre unique.” As long as the rhythm is correct, it doesn’t matter what language it’s in—it’s the emotion that counts.

Figure 8: Minefield, Royal Court Theatre, Lift, Brighton Festival

More in line with the Tricycle model was a very recent example, which we were closely involved with relating to the UK’s troubled relationship with Argentina—now happily on an upward path. It was called Minefield (an apt title!) and was a developed drama through dialogue and documentary between war veterans from both sides of the Falklands conflict in 1984.[3] It involved a co-commission by the Brighton Festival and London International Festival of Theatre, alongside the Royal Court, and included an experienced Argentinian director, Lola Arias. It wasn’t about the contested sovereignty of the islands, but a considered psychological take on the effects of war on combatants and families from both sides, through the lens of the conflict. After the war many got new jobs, as security guards or musicians for example … and today all they have in common is that they fought each other. Our Foreign Office was initially nervous, but we felt this was core to our mission in the arts to build mutual and friendly understanding in areas of difficulty; and our faith was vindicated by the great reception the show received both in the UK and Buenos Aires. It has returned in 2017, to Edinburgh as part of Spirit of 47,[4] as well as on an English regional tour.

The Spirit of 47 programme was a jointly conceived enterprise by the Edinburgh International Festival and the British Council to mark 70 years of the festival and also to mark the involvement of the British Council as one of the founding partners in it back in 1947.[5] The festival was born through the spirit of European reconciliation after World War Two, and as such it was distinctly consonant with the British Council’s own mission of building mutual understanding between nations through cultural exchange and collaboration—in this case RE-building. In our jointly curated programme in 2017, we tried to reimagine the festival’s founding vision in the context of today’s geo-political and social world—global more than merely European, and what the festival might look like if it had been started in 2017, not 1947: the diversity of Europe, the new power of the East, the emergence of new cultural powers. Our programme featured Minefield, almost as a signature statement, but also more than 20 other countries, including Iran, Ukraine, Syria, Palestine and Pakistan.

And recently relations between the UK and Argentina have taken further steps forward—I am convinced that this theatre connection has something directly to do with this, through an increase in mutual trust at a high level. It’s not provable, but it definitely represents cultural diplomacy in action through theatre on a challenging subject.

Equally important in changing attitudes is our work (closely with the Southbank Centre in London) on Unlimited, an ongoing programme of work involving disabled artists and creatives. If, as I have, you’ve been moved by the extraordinary achievements of all the Paralympic athletes in Rio, you will be equally moved by the work of these artists, amongst them choreographer and dancer Clare Cunningham, and writer, artist and play-worker Jess Thom. She co-founded Touretteshero in 2010 to celebrate the humour and creativity of Tourette Syndrome, from which she herself is a sufferer.




Figure 9a&b: Claire Cunnigham and Jess Thom

Taking on the identity of part-time superhero Touretteshero, she has turned her tics into a source of creative energy to spread the word about this frequently misunderstood neurological condition via a wide range of artistic channels. The company aims to increase awareness of the disorder and its challenges without self-pity or mockery; it makes work that turns the laughter associated with Tourettes into a genuinely funny cultural alternative.

It’s this kind of work that Carole McFadden, who has so ably led the programme for us over five years at the British Council, thinks can really change attitudes not only to disability but also to the art forms themselves. Her evidence is the fact that so many international delegates now come to the Unlimited Festival through us—it’s now in its third edition at the Southbank, having started as part of the Cultural Olympiad in London in 2012. We are active commissioners and “internationalisers” of the programme with our partners, and Carole has seen her own personal connections with the artists change her. It also leads to policy change and change in attitudes towards access and inclusivity. Now, we are seeing some of the works being programmed not even in a disability context, but in mainstream festival programmes. Progress and power indeed.

National Theatre of Scotland (which works without its own home theatre base) and now director at the world-renowned Royal Court, London’s home for new and radical writing … Vicky says: “how little theatre has changed since 400BC. There have been so many challenges to theatre—electricity, television, digital, the challenge of other entertainment, but fundamentally the format hasn’t changed. It serves a basic human need, both emotional and intellectual. It presents stories either affirming what we are (a kind of ‘hot water bottle’ comforter) or those that deconstruct what we are (questioning or disrupting our sense of self). Theatre creates a kind of empathy—we sit as a congregation digesting a narrative. In today’s secular world, a world of individual entertainment, with mobile phones, games, the end of family meals and conversation … in such a world theatre (like a concert) is one of the few places we come together to share a story and its impact. We share what someone else is feeling—which is a very sophisticated thing to do. Theatre bears witness to these experiences, and as a member of the audience, they will remain with us for ever, and sometimes produce individual and collective transformation.”

I hope you have found some of my examples convincing and powerful—I hope they might have changed and broadened your minds to the potential power of theatre, both emotional and intellectual, to effect change in individuals through a personal transformation and moment.

Figure 10: Cloud Gate Dance Theatre performing Rite of Tree

I am left though with that paradox, so neatly and poetically expressed by Lin Hwai Min of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre—I paraphrase him here, for which I hope he’ll forgive me. But his essence is that, in this art form, power is expressed both in the moment and in its memory by those who see it. The fact that all we have is “that instant, and those fleeting moments”, that evanescent moment is also evidence in the end of theatre’s ultimate powerlessness. Powerful or powerless—or both? An endless conundrum! You make up your own mind as you experience your next theatre performance…

[1] Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of the speech delivered by Graham Sheffield for the opening of the National Taichung Theater, Taiwan on 1st October 2016.






Graham Sheffield: Personal Reflections

The essay above records my reflections on the power of theatre from the perspective of the British Council. I work for the British Council—I’ve been there seven years, after several decades spent in radio and the arts, mostly running multi-arts centres, like the Southbank and the Barbican in London. This short reflective piece collects a few formative experiences that inform my thinking.

In 2016, I was in Liverpool in the north west of England—an old port city, now much revived through investment into the arts, in terms of both its infrastructure and its artists. It’s a very cosmopolitan city—birthplace of the Beatles, home to artistic institutions including Tate Liverpool, FACT arts centre, the International Slavery Museum, the Everyman Theatre, as well as Paul McCartney’s school for the performing arts. It has a large and diverse population, home to the oldest black and Chinese communities in England, and known historically for its large Irish and Welsh populations. I was there, with most of my arts colleagues from the British Council’s East Asia region, for a strategic meeting of the kind we try to hold every year, usually in region, but this time (for the first time) in the UK. The region covers territory from Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, down through South East Asia, including Burma, through Indonesia to Australia and New Zealand. This week-long exposure of overseas colleagues to the arts scene in a particular English location, I know, has given them new insight into the power of the arts in urban regeneration in an important city outside of London.

As part of the programme, we invited Professor Geoff Crossick (from the Arts and Humanities Research Council) to talk to us about the value of the arts and his views on evaluation and how we measure it. In his talk to us, one phrase (of many) stuck in my mind: “an impact always starts in the arts with an individual personal experience”. It certainly rang true to me, since experiences in the arts—particularly music and theatre—have (I believe) shaped who I am as a human being, who I am as a professional, and my whole persona and emotional make-up over the entirety of my life. It’s my artistic “daily bread” as it were, akin to a bowl of rice in the daily diets of most Asian cultures—meals are unthinkable without it! My daily diet for life is unthinkable without some art!

My chosen subject eventually turned out to be Music—I am a trained western classical musician—but I have encountered theatre ever since I was about nine years old, attempting the part of Ariel in Shakespeare’s Tempest, dressed in a very fetching mini skirt, which must be one of the earliest theatrical photos of “cross-dressing”.

Figure 11: A “Scene from the Tempest”

At my senior school, I studied Classics (Latin and Ancient Greek) before switching to Music as a discipline, and in the course of this read, translated and experienced many of the ancient Greek dramas of Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, as well as the comedies—both in English and in an amazing traditional Greek theatre, built at Bradfield School, where they used to do these dramas IN ancient Greek, and in those days without surtitles.

Figure 12: The Greek theatre, Bradfield College

I was hooked very early—by the emotional power of the stories, as well as by the communal nature of the event: a crowd experiencing an ancient story together in a way the Greeks would have done in Epidaurus in 400BC, more than two millennia ago.

I now turn to classic personal influences, particularly the work Brecht, Wagner and Artaud—who although professing different theories—were all attempting to realise the power of theatre through emotional or intellectual frameworks, or a mixture of both.

For Berthold Brecht, theatre was a transformative act, most effective for those who made it, imagining things to become “other”. That power he saw almost as shamanic, magic—the power being its roots in ritual. In Brecht’s eyes, epic theatre should not cause the spectator actually to identify with the characters or action before them, rather it should provoke a rational self-reflection and a critical view of the action on stage. Brecht, in effect, wanted his audience to adopt a critical perspective in order to recognise social injustice and exploitation, and to be moved to leave the theatre to effect change outside; these techniques reminding the spectator that the play is a representation of reality, not reality itself.







Figures 13 a, b & c:

Brecht, Artaud and Wagner




To a large degree, this was the antithesis of the “overwhelming of the senses” advocated by Richard Wagner in his operas, and by the influential dramatist, poet, actor and all round man of the theatre Antonin Artaud.

In 1938, Artaud wrote “Theatre and its Double”, a manifesto of his so-called “theatre of cruelty”. He sought to create a theatre that was, in effect, a return to magic and ritual, inventing a new theatrical language of totem and gesture, devoid of dialogue, which would appeal to the senses. “Words say little to the mind, compared to space thundering with images and crammed with sounds.” Formal theatre with scripts was “a hindrance to the magic of genuine ritual.”

Not a million miles away from Wagner almost a century earlier, when in 1849 he coined the term Gesamtkunstwerk—all inclusive art work, embracing and synthesising all the art forms—musical, visual and literary in the interests of an all-powerful sensory experience to overwhelm the spectator.

Wagner was an admirer of the earliest of the Greek dramatists Aeschylus, citing him as the finest exponent of total artistic synthesis, later “corrupted” by Euripides, as the art forms went their separate ways. David Greig’s 2017 production of Aeschylus’s Suppliant Women, referred to above, was Gesamkunstwerk in the Wagnerian sense.

My perspective on the power of theatre also reflects the work of contemporary directors. One of the European artists I follow most closely (I’m a great admirer of his work) is the Dutch director Ivo van Hove. He would approve of Greig’s Suppliant Women, since he feels strongly that theatre can reflect powerfully on politics, especially when there is a distance between current context and the original setting of the play. So, 2,500 years between Aeschylus and the current migration crisis in Europe should do fine! And his own Kings of War (a compelling retelling of Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses plays) was eminently relatable to more recent events on the European political stage. But he is adamant that he seeks no direct change himself: “if you want change,” he says, “you’d better go into politics!”

Van Hove thinks that theatre has been declared dead many times. Its resilience to date indicates it will undoubtedly survive the twenty-first century …. a credible power in itself. As a live social event, it fulfils a basic human need, almost unlike any other art form in its ability to create a communal empathy. Issues of society are always deeply rooted in theatre. Bergman said theatre was what made it worthwhile being on this planet.

Figure 14: Roman Tragedies, Toneelgoep Amsterdam

Van Hove, though, is more radical when it comes to the audience, looking always to express things in the most extreme way for impact. In his magnificent epic Roman Tragedies (Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra all rolled into one), he cut all the citizen scenes, but effectively recreated the citizenry by allowing the audience to roam on and off the stage, witnessing the action from close-up, framing it and populating it. His theory is based on thoughts on the changing nature of theatre spaces—from open air ten thousand capacity arenas in Greece, to semi open in Shakespeare’s day, to semi-private in the nineteenth century, to darkness and individual privacy today. He’s, in effect, trying to open it up again …. a theatrical/architectural response, I think to attempt to increase the power—or the communal empathy.

Figure 15: The Passion, National Theatre Wales

John McGrath, director of the Manchester International Festival, formerly the distinguished director of National Theatre Wales, describes his approach to a participating audience somewhat differently. One of the productions from his early time in Wales was called Passion, directed by actor Michael Sheen. It was (to quote the press) a riotous retelling of the biblical crucifixion story, which took place in a depressed steel town in Wales called Port Talbot. The population of the town was the cast. McGrath told me of this communal narrative which everyone shared about the industrial wasteland that was Port Talbot then. The power here manifested itself through the actions of the cast, in particular by the crowd literally shouting at Pontius Pilate, the symbol of Roman authority. For them, he said, they were stepping into a real moment—when narrative becomes reality. A year later, rather than being depressed, the town had begun re-inventing itself, people had begun taking their own futures back.

McGrath thinks theatre the most powerful of art forms, because (unlike music) of the directness of its message. “I wouldn’t be in it, if I didn’t think it had power.”

Figure 16: British Council House in the 1930s