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Britain needs to stage a comeback

The empty auditorium of the London Coliseum, home of English National Opera (ENO) - Credit: Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images

Britain needs its theatres back because Britain IS theatre – a country obsessed with role-playing

When I stumbled on the English National Opera’s rendition of Handel’s Messiah recently and watched it for a while, I suddenly burst into tears. There, in the empty London Coliseum where the ENO were performing amidst the shadows of the empty theatre, came the voice of the countertenor Iestyn Davies.

I had heard plenty of countertenors before. And I heard mainly mezzos sing the part that Mr Davies was singing. But I had never seen a countertenor take it on before. Had never experienced the power and the beauty of a man singing in his falsetto range, pushing out a classical music aria with such power.

I think that I cried, too, thinking of those singers and musicians there because, like dancers and actors, they have to use their bodies. Their bodies are what they have as their instrument of making theatre, and making their lives, too.

What happens to you if you have to keep fit in a void, when there is nothing to do, nothing to be, but you have to keep your body, your voice, together anyway?

The thing about the theatre is that it exists in the bodies and the minds and the hearts of its makers and creators. It is a 24/7 occupation even if you do not realise it. Even if you do not want it to be. But you do because the theatre is life.

If you happen to write plays, like I do, that fact of sheltering, and in solitary too, gives the characters a kind of full range.  

I am currently working on a play I have had commissioned. So I am not alone because I have my characters.

But I cried watching the ENO’s Handel because there before me was a real theatre and there were real performers in it, and their voices and faces and the conductor all looked so radiant.

But if you are an actor and you are not acting, are you really an actor at all? Who understands that question better than a person who needs an audience in order to make a living? Maybe even to understand who they are. Maybe to even breathe.

This country makes the best theatre in the world because the UK is a theatre. A map I once saw from the 17th century is called “The Theatre Of Great Britain”, and even though that probably meant something else then, it is still apt.

The reason that Britain makes the best theatre is that role-playing is buried deep within the national psyche.

Shakespeare’s theatre was called The Globe, and that makes sense because his world, onstage and off, was role-playing; various parts shifting and changing. Theatre.

Meghan Markle, an actor formally trained in the profession and who therefore knows what acting is, must have wondered, at some point, when the masks would slip.

I can imagine her, after hours, asking her staff to kick off their shoes and tell her all about themselves. She must have asked herself ‘if or when or does the curtain come down and the lights come on and the show is over?’

She knows now that the show never really is over. Maybe you have a crack-up when you come to understand that the curtain never comes down, not really.

The great Agatha Christie understood the English best, to my mind, and her character Poirot exemplifies this. When someone explains to him why he is not showing emotion about something, that it is the British “stiff upper lip”, Poirot says sarcastically: “Magnifique!”

When people complained about the slovenliness, in some people’s estimation, of Boris Johnson’ hair and general look as he announced the death of Prince Philip, they forget that this is the costume of a toff.

This is the role-playing of a class that does not have to be neat and tidy. That in fact a sign of not being a toff is that you are neat and tidy.

It is a part, a stance and when you see it, you could know that this man is an Old Etonian of a certain generation. A part in the play of The Theatre Of Great Britain.

But like too many immigrants, it has taken me a long time to realise that a kind of theatricality is this country’s real superpower and the theatre its seedbed.

Churchill performed a role: the man he was meant to be as a descendant of the Duke of Marlborough. Churchill played the man his own father was not. He believed in Britain and the British Empire, its very being. So he literally talked the country through the performance of World War II.

When I use the term “performance” this is not to denigrate the sacrifice the nation made, but I am referring to its spirit.

In 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the future Queen Mother, came to America to visit the Roosevelts in a bid to win neutral America to the side of the UK. Elizabeth wore nothing but white. Because she was in mourning for her mother.

The great Cecil Beaton, who designed for her, insisted that she wear white, not black. Why? Because she would not only look like a Queen, but a Fairy Queen, the kind that Americans grew up seeing in the movies and in children’s books.

The magazines and newspapers went crazy. She was stunning as she performed the part of The Fairy Queen.

It was she who won the day for the UK in America, and Hitler, a man who understood theatre, knew what she had pulled off. Probably one of the reasons he is said to have called her the most dangerous woman in Europe.

This sense of theatre, this innate grasp of understanding that there is always an audience, always someone watching and judging, is a gift. The greatest gift that this great nation has.

Producing the greatest theatre, the UK leads not only because of the natural theatricality of the culture, but because of the deep understanding of this by the audience.

My good friend who works for the EU institutions in Brussels says that one of the regrets that people had in her department about Brexit was the sense of the moment that the British have; how not to be serious while being deadly serious.

The theatre, so embedded within the culture and its psyche, is one reason that Labour continues to lose elections. Jeremy Corbyn is a real person. Keir Starmer is a real person. Labour is a real Party.

Boris Johnson, on the other hand, is total theatre.

The Conservatives are theatre until they become a vote-winning machine. Then they pitch a bit of what works from their Theatre Of Great Britain script and fit it according to the region/people.

But their candidate for mayor of London, Shaun Bailey, who will no doubt soon find himself in Britain’s biggest theatre outside of the West End, the House Of Lords, is also a real person, a kind of Tory anomaly: so they don’t quite know what to do with him. His campaigning is sad to see.

John Osborne chose the music hall as the setting for his lament about post-war Britain, The Entertainer. And it is no accident that John Osborne was the last revolution in British theatre. As unpleasant a man as he was in real life, he understood the basic warp and woof of his country.

The present culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, has unleashed millions in a rescue plan that includes theatres. This is great and will make a big difference.

But there is something that the Conservatives either do not understand or know, or both, about theatre: tourists contribute to the country’s GDP because of it.

Nobody comes to the UK for the food, the beach or the scenery. They come for culture: all of it. But especially for the theatre. 

Culture is the crown. And theatre, performance, is the jewel in that crown.

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