Bonjana Janković*

Instead of an opening point, I propose the title: to claim that to examine UK theatre is to question its position on and in Brexit. Anything else absolves theatre of political agency and responsibility, while negating that the country’s departure from the EU shapes every aspect of the UK’s recent past, present and future.

Brexit here is understood as a detachment from an international community—a formalisation of the UK’s discomfort with the idea of belonging to, rather than ruling, a congregation of countries, and its reluctance to accept historical, geographical and cultural bonds to Europe.

In light of this, the article will specifically consider theatre’s relationship with foreign elements—immigrants marginalised by Brexit and EU funds put at risk by it. It will do so to signpost how theatre contribute(d) to the Brexit discourse and to contemplate what a future freed of the EU might look like on UK stages.

Theatre?

Before this analysis, an asterisk—to problematize the word “theatre” and introduce the landscape of artists and institutions explored.

In the UK, “theatre” refers primarily to plays and their staging. “New Writing” is the focus of many venues; playwrights stand at the top of the hierarchy, with the role of directors still routinely questioned.[1] “Devised theatre” implies collective authorship, and an absence of a play as a starting point, but not necessarily a radical aesthetic or a deviation from text-driven work. Performance (art) is used equally by artists who stem from visual arts and use the body as the site of their work, and by those who want to distance themselves (aesthetically or politically) from theatre. Live Art is more clearly defined, but as a cultural strategy committed to marginalised experiences and practices, rather than formally.

The Gate theatre

Theatre and performance and Live Art exist in almost entirely separate worlds, supported by different infrastructures. Theatre has a network of subsidised venues, a commercial wing (including the West End), and a well-oiled fringe machine. Performance and Live Art operate in a comparatively tiny realm, supported by dedicated organisations like the Live Art Development Agency, Home Live Art or Artsadmin and a number of artist-led initiatives, including Glasgow’s //BUZZCUT//, performance s p a c e in Folkstone, or Live Art Bistro in Leeds. Radical practices have few dedicated spaces; instead, they lurk from experimental programmes of big venues, underground and club nights, festivals and, increasingly, museums and galleries eager to institutionalise them.

Albion. Photo: Marc Brenner

Theatre and performance and Live Art differ in another way: their insularity. In 2013, just 3.2% of all plays performed in the UK were in translation,[2] a statistic reflecting the general trend of saving British stages for predominately British texts. Visits by foreign companies are a rarity, reduced primarily to several festivals (LIFT or the Edinburgh International Festival) and venues (like the Barbican, where Thomas Ostermeier and Ivo van Hove, who recently directed The Network at the National Theatre, visit annually). Foreign infusions are reserved for theatres marked as “innovative”—this is the case with The Gate, a tiny London venue with a big reputation, where Ellen McDougall’s inaugural season as the Artistic Director encompassed both visiting playwrights (Falk Richter) and directors (Jean-Pierre Baro). Performance and Live Art are distinctly more international. SPILL Festival’s National Platform for emerging names, held in Ipswich, is filled with UK-based immigrant artists; visiting performances are guaranteed at many festivals—including Fierce (Birmingham) or Steakhouse Live (London).

Separated by aesthetics, politics and infrastructures, these two strands of performed work in the UK contest the term “theatre.” The fracture of this term—into traditional theatre and radical practices—is used here as a starting point for analyses.

Stages of Oblivion

On June 23, 2016, just over 72% of the UK voters answered a seemingly simple question at the polls: “should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” 51.9% chose leave; on March 29, 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May officially started the two-year Brexit negotiation process. A frustrating year later, the European Commission released a draft agreement on key issues,[3] including the rights of 3 million EU citizens in the UK. Colour coded to illustrate levels of dispute, the document symbolises the uncertainty which prevails.

Before there was a referendum however, there was a political promise of it—and in between, three years passed. During this time, as the national debate on the EU steadily grew, theatre and performance stubbornly resisted it, with only rare, one-off events dedicated to the topic. The temporary blindness was acknowledged in the aftermath of the vote; articulating a defence, critic Matt Trueman argued that theatre should not respond to politics in real time—but instead function as a place of considered reflection, “a space for us to take pause, to see ourselves and our society afresh.”[4]

What this discussion failed to acknowledge is that there were many other, more complex questions, hiding behind the simplistic one on the ballot. They concern economic insecurity, intensified by the disassembling of the welfare state, and a fear of decreasing sovereignty, amplified by the loss of imperial power; for over a decade, they were blamed on immigrants (stealing jobs, burdening the state) and the EU (giving Estonia a vote, shaping British bananas).

Eight days before the referendum, the Leave campaign unveiled a billboard picturing a long line of unspecified migrants of colour and the tag line “Breaking Point”; several hours later, Labour MP Jo Cox was assassinated by a man shouting extreme-right slogans. These events were the culmination of a sustained campaign of nationalism, racism, xenophobia and post-colonial mourning, which a week later delivered the Leave victory. The question is not whether theatre and performance addressed the referendum itself, but what they did, in the preceding years, to nurture the idea that immigrants are people, that the EU is not a bureaucratic dictatorship, or that nationalism and colonialism are bad.

Natasha Davis, Internal Terrains. Photo: Bob Karper

The relationship of theatre and performance to immigrants is especially pertinent when it comes to Eastern Europeans, a demographic so systematically vilified in the years before the referendum that the leave vote inspired an outburst of celebratory hate crimes that started with leaflets (“no more Polish vermin”), progressed to arson and led to murders.[5] A point of constant deliberation in the British media, Eastern European immigrants appeared on UK stages only sporadically; their experiences were explored with most nuance within Live Art and performance. Natasha Davis’ work starts from feelings of displacement and belonging, locating them in the body, a site of political pressures and memory alike.

Video 1

Interval by Justyna Scheuring

In juxtaposition to this self-reflection, Justyna Scheuring confronts her audiences with their own political complicity. In Foreigner’s Dance, she invites them to join her in a silent disco dance, inevitably to no avail; her palms and face covered in fluorescent paint, superficially but undoubtedly tribal, her simple action recreates the imposed feeling of otherness while asserting that othering is a long standing British tradition. Created in Brexit Britain, Everyone, Merry-Go-Round is a counter-attack in which Scheuring delivers a speech in Polish, translated by seven interpreters into English, British and Polish sign language at the same time—the cacophony of voices and movement indicating we are past simple communication problems.

Justyn Scheuring, Foreigner’s-Dance. Photo: Greg-Goodale

Alketa Xhafa Mripa travels around the country in a white van reminiscent of those seen in Calais, transformed into a living room. Under the title Refugees Welcome, the installation invites passers-by to share a cup of tea with the Kosovan artists and talk about the UK’s refusal to welcome Syrian refugees. Davis, Scheuring and Mripa are all immigrants; The Milk of Human Kindness, in which Christ Thorpe spent six hours reading top-rated online comments written under the articles about immigration and the refugee crises, is a rare example of a British artist concerned with immigrant topics.

Video 2

Refugees Welcome, by Alketa Xhafa Mripa

In more traditional theatre spaces, Eastern European narratives were rare, predominantly historic, and concerned wars in former Yugoslavia (Debbie Tucker Green’s Truth and Reconciliation), the fall of the Berlin Wall (revivals of David Edgar’s Iron Curtain Trilogy), as well as the First World War (Nenad Prokić’s Finger Trigger Bullet Gun, commissioned by Stan’s Cafe). Tena Štivičić’s 3 Winters, produced in 2014 by the National Theatre (NT), and following three generations of a Croat family, remains the most significant example of a not entirely historic Eastern European presence on a major stage. Immigrant stories were still the purview of international companies like Vanner, whose piece Ashes Afar explored the misfortunes of a Romanian-Irish couple in England. As a result, Eastern Europeans remained overwhelmingly confined to a context that’s removed in both space and time from contemporary British society.

In the pre-referendum times, Eastern European immigrants were, therefore, primarily made visible within performance and Live Art—practices distinctly more international than theatre. After the referendum, as venues rushed to promise new commissions on Brexit, now legitimised as a point of creative departure, theatre remained impervious to their existence. Camden People’s Theatre, a venue dedicated to “unconventional” theatre, curated two one-day festivals about the referendum (before and after the vote), which failed to involve a single Eastern European (migration was most directly discussed by Portuguese artist Xavier de Sousa).

Video 3

My Country at the NT

The Almeida, often hailed as the home of progressive theatre, commissioned Albion, in which Mike Bartlett digs through the dirt of Brexit England through a story that includes a country house and its dilapidated gardens. Directed by Rupert Goold, the play features a single Polish character, whose depiction made Time Out critic Andrzej Łukowski confess that he “long(s) for the day when we’re not portrayed as humourless workhorses.”[6]

The NT, on the other hand, posited that the debate about the British future belongs only to British passport holders. My Country; A Work in Progress mashes political speeches and interviews with “people nationwide” conducted “in the days following the Brexit vote.” Created by the NT Artistic Director Rufus Norris and poet laureate Carol Ann Duff, the performance features actors playing the roles of UK regions (as well as Britannia itself), excluding all foreign bodies by its very premise. The almost exclusively white cast does little to reassure British people of colour.

Royal and Derngate Northampton, Lyric Theatre Belfast, Sherman Theatre in Cardiff and The Lyceum in Edinburgh are collaborating on a series of commissions on the country’s “changing relationship with Europe”—it remains to be seen if that relationship will include non-passport holders. This aspect of Brexit still appears relevant only to immigrant makers, such as Little Soldier (Patricia Rodríguez and Mercè Ribot), whose show Derailed takes form of an ambiguous—possibly authentic—leaving party.

My Country. Photo: Sarah Lee

As the NT example shows, stage deliberations of Brexit can be excluding of more than a single immigrant demographic. Even within performance and Live Art there are signs of a changing climate. The 2017 edition of IBT Festival in Bristol featured a noticeably reduced presence of artists based outside the UK, inviting questions of curatorial intent, and inevitably, shrinking budgets. This moves the discussion to another aspect of foreignness: foreign funding.

What Has Europe Ever Done for Us?

Art subsidy in the UK has been shrinking since the 2008 financial crises; the pace picked up when the Conservative Party took power in 2010. Between 2010 and 2015, Arts Council England (ACE) had its government funding cut by 36%[7]; in the same period, art subsidies from local authorities declined by 16.6%.[8]

In April 2018, faced with another 5.5% budget cut, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland reduced the subsidy of 43 (out of 100) annually funded organisations, removing another seven from the portfolio.[9] Two years ago, the Welsh Arts Council offset another budget decrease by protecting organisations receiving less than £150,000 per year, at the expense of bigger institutions; since then, its budget has increased but not to pre-2016 levels.[10] Earlier this year, Creative Scotland seemed so unprepared for a standstill budget, that it unsuspectedly cut off 20 organisations; one week and two board member resignations later, five of them—some led by or working with marginalised groups—got their funding reinstated.[11]

Austerity did not just bring about cuts; changes in policy and rhetoric followed. Art organisations are increasingly required to show that they are diversifying income strands (attracting more corporate sponsorship, increasing profits, etc.) and bringing economic benefits to their communities. Big venues, like the NT or the Almeida, produce at least one show slated for a West End transfer per season. For artists, this means venues who weigh curatorial risk against financial pressures, while often resorting to profit share deals, instead of paying minimum union fees.

In this context, Brexit is yet another blow, one for which arts councils are not necessarily prepared. ACE’s most recent survey on the potential impact of Brexit,[12] found that, while only a small percentage (14%) of artists and organisations receive direct EU funding, almost a third benefit from it through consortium applications or participation in EU supported projects; 64% of respondents work within the Union. However, it is the remit of organisations set to lose the most, rather than their sheer number, that is alarming.

Innovative, politically engaged, and focused on experimental or radical forms— those are the companies who, in embracing international exchange, escaping the theatre/performance dichotomy, and in search of subsidy top-ups, are most likely to tour the EU or rely on its funding. That is the case of 1927, a theatre company named in both ACE reports on Brexit; in 2016, 83% of its turnover came from “tours, co-productions and commissions with EU partners,”[13] including Berlin’s Komische Oper. ISIS arts, who produce internationally (and regularly win EU funding), or Forced Entertainment, the UK’s biggest European stars, would likely fit a fairly similar bill.

In March 2017, ACE also published a paper of priorities for “international collaboration post Brexit.”[14] Adopting the official government line, it puts forward an idea of Brexit as an opportunity (to travel further afield for example), and promises continued dialogue, bespoke research and concrete proposals to circumvent any problems that might arise. The most obvious one is membership in Creative Europe, top of the agenda for ACE, but low on the list of priorities for official negotiators.

A temporary or permanent reduction, or elimination of Creative Europe in the UK, would endanger projects like PUSH, which creates theatre and dance for young audiences, revolving around topics of identity, borders and safety zones; or Collective Plays, which invites playwrights from around Europe to work as an ensemble; or Imagine 2020, commissioning work addressing socio-ecological challenges.

The UK government has made vague promises to replace money art organisations lose through Brexit—but stopped short of promising to apply the same funding criteria without introducing new requirements, on commercial viability or collaboration outside the EU for example. Furthermore, Creative Europe is just one source of funding; the EU structural fund will have sent £60 million to Wales alone between 2014 and 2020, including to third sector art organisations.[15]

With no clear post-Brexit plans, it is the initiatives and organisations on the less traditional end of the theatre/performance fracture that face existential problems—those who reject entrenched theatre hierarchies and claims of authorship, or theatre altogether, or its ambivalence to issues offhandedly labelled as “daily politics.” Attached to their survival is a risk of increased insularity.[16]

Future Islands

Notably missing from these discussions are people—the aforementioned 3 million EU citizens currently residing in the UK. ACE insists it will “ensure that leading international creative talent is readily able to work in this country,” but never implies some of them may already be here. As for organisations, the 2018 report showed they worry more about their ability to tour post-Brexit, than the imminent future of their EU colleagues. This neglect comes at a time when long-term residency in the UK is already impossible for most non-EU artists, exposed to the policy of “hostile environment.” Now that this friendly treatment includes privileged EU citizens, UK theatre, performance and art in general risk being cleansed of all but the most stubborn accented folk.

In pre-Brexit years, theatre neglected to oppose the rising xenophobia, while performance and Live Art left it to immigrant artists. In the era of Brexit, theatre is yet to stage a fight against cultural isolation; performance and Live Art—and their immigrant artists—face a potentially brutal fight for basic sustainability. Stages unconcerned with foreign bodies, and funders blind to foreign presence, are not politically passive; they promote theatre that is made only by and for the demographic majority, while slowly obliterating the support structures of its more radical, diverse and political parts. When the process is done, we might be left with institutions that harbour not just an island mentality, but an island culture as well. Or, as the government calls it, Global Britain.


[1] In the words of Sir David Hare: “Now we’re heading in Britain towards an over-aestheticised European theatre. We’ve got all those people called ‘theatre makers’—God help us, what a word!—coming in and doing director’s theatre where you camp up classic plays and you cut them and you prune them around.” Quoted in Alberge, Dalya, “David Hare: Classic British Drama is ‘being infected’ by Radical European Staging.” The Observer, 29 January 2017, accessed 5 November 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/jan/29/david-hare-classic-british-drama-infected-radical-european-staging.

[2] British Theatre Consortium, UK Theatre, and the Society of London Theatre (2013) “British Theatre Repertoire 2013,” London, accessed 5 November 2017, http://britishtheatreconference.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/British-Theatre-Repe>rtoire-2013.pdf.

[3] The European Commission, “Draft Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community,” 19 March 2017, accessed 15 April 2018, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/draft_agreement_coloured.pdf.

[4] Trueman, Matt, “Why theatre didn’t tackle Brexit.” What’s on Stage, 27 June 2016, accessed 5 November 2017, http://www.whatsonstage.com/london-theatre/news/matt-trueman-theatre-didnt-tackle-brexit_41155.html.

[5] Nigel Farage once claimed “people would be concerned if a group or Romanians moves in next door”; research by the Oxford Migration Observatory showed both broadsheet and tabloid media has persistently used words with extremely negative connotations to talk about Romanians, Bulgarians and Roma; police in England and Wales reported a record high number of hate crimes in the three months after the referendum.

[6] Łukowski, Andrzej , “Albion review,” Time Out, 6 November 2017, accessed 5 November 2017, https://www.timeout.com/london/theatre/albion-review.

[7] Youngs, Ian, “Arts Council Boss Makes Funding Plea”. BBC New, 28 May 2015, accessed 5 November 2017, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-32915647.

[8] Harvey, Adrian (2016) “Funding Arts and Culture in a Time of Austerity,” London: NLG and Arts Council England, accessed 5 November 2017, http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/Funding%20Arts%20and%20Culture%20in%20a%20time%20of%20Austerity%20(Adrian%20Harvey).pdf.

[9] Meredith, Robbie, “Arts Council of Northern Ireland cuts funding,” BBC News, 11 April 2017, accessed 15 April 2017, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-43719998.

[10] Romer, Christy, “Two-year funding for Welsh arts portfolio looks likely,” Arts Professional, 17 November 2017, accessed 20 November 2017, https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/news/two-year-funding-welsh-arts-portfolio-looks-likely.

[11] Romer, Christy, “Creative Scotland U-turns on arts funding cuts,” Arts Professional, 6 February 2018, accessed 15 April 2017, https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/news/creative-scotland-u-turns-arts-funding-cuts.

[12] ICM (2018) “Impact of Brexit on the Arts and Culture Sector,” London: ICM and Arts Council England, accessed 15 April 2018. https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/Arts%20Council_Brexit%20Research%202017_Report_FINAL.pdf.

[13] Arts Council England (2016) “The Arts and Culture Contents Sector and Exit from the European Union,” Manchester: Arts Council England, accessed 5 November 2017, http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/Arts_culture_Sector_exit_from_EU_NOV_16.pdf.

[14] “Arts Council England: International Collaboration Post Brexit,” 30 March 2017, accessed 5 November 2017.  http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/Arts_Council_England_international_collaboration_post_Brexit.pdf.

[15] Brexit: Creative Industries – Motion to Take Note, House of Lords, 19 January 2017, accessed 5 November 2017 .  https://www.theyworkforyou.com/lords/?id=2017-01-19a.340.9.

[16] During the writing of this article, The European Commission decided to cancel the UK’s turn to host the European Capital of Culture in 2023. The EC explained that the candidacy is only open to EU, EEA and EFT members and EU candidates. The government criticized the decision by stating the UK is leaving the EU and not Europe.


*Bojana Janković is a performance artist, critic and writer. She co-founded Critical Interruptions, a project exploring performance and live art criticism, leads Persons of Interest, a professional development programme ran by the Serbian Association of Theatre Critics, and makes performances and installations as one half of performance company There There. Bojana is currently a Visiting Lecturer at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London.

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