[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/29319?ns=guardian&pageName=British+theatre+isn%27t+a+utopia+yet+%E2%80%93+but+we%27re+on+our+way%3AArticle%3A1313152&ch=Stage&c3=Guardian&c4=Theatre%2CStage%2CCulture+section%2CUK+news&c6=Michael+Billington&c7=09-Dec-02&c8=1313152&c9=Article&c10=Feature&c11=Stage&c13=&c25=Theatre+blog&c30=content&h2=GU%2FStage%2Fblog%2FTheatre+blog[/img]There's plenty to celebrate in the state of British theatre, but there are causes for concern too, says Michael Billington
Are we living through a theatrical golden age? Certainly there's plenty to shout about, as the accompanying pages prove: a wealth of new talent, high standards in acting, direction and design. Above all, there is a sense at the moment that theatre matters and has shed its dusty, fusty image. But before we get too carried away, I think we should acknowledge gaps in the system. Looking back over the last 12 months, I'd call it a silver, rather than a golden, period.
The best news is our theatre's capacity to react to a rapidly changing world: something where it beats television hands down. In the last year I have seen four plays dealing, in different ways, with the financial crisis and the workings of the markets: Lucy Prebble's Enron, David Hare's The Power of Yes, the multi-authored Everything Must Go and Steve Thompson's Roaring Trade (these last two, incidentally, at the invaluable Soho Theatre in London). In comparison, a much-hyped TV drama about the collapse of Lehman Brothers seemed muddled and confusing.
But it's not just the crisis in capitalism that powers our theatre. Afghan history was covered in a 12-play cycle, The Great Game, at London's Tricycle. Climate change was dramatised in compelling human terms in two plays by Steve Waters, The Contingency Plan, at the Bush. What it's like to be a Muslim woman in modern London was also the subject of two remarkable debut pieces: Alia Bano's Shades at the Royal Court and Atiha Sen Gupta's What Fatima Did at Hampstead. When you factor in the Tricycle's state-of-the-nation season by black British writers, including the well-established Roy Williams and Kwame-Kwei Armah, something else becomes strikingly apparent: the emergence of a growing stream of writers reflecting our society's multiculturalism.
I could add a long list of things that have impressed over the last year. Mark Rylance's muscular charisma in Jez Butterworth's lament for the decline of rural myths, Jerusalem. The perfection of Howard Davies's production of Peter Flannery's Burnt by the Sun: the one example I can recall of a transposed film matching the original. Laurie Sansom's brilliant Northampton revival of two forgotten American plays – Tennessee Williams's Spring Storm and Eugene O'Neill's Beyond The Horizon – also provided one of the best experiences I had in a theatre all year.
So what's the worry? Firstly, as I've argued before, the increasing neglect of classic drama. With the RSC's Swan out of action for refurbishment, you realise how rare it is to see Elizabethan, Jacobean, Restoration or late 18th-century plays: a generation is growing up that has no idea how to perform, stage or even appreciate Jonson, Webster, Congreve or Sheridan. A healthy theatre is based on a balance of past and present, but our current historical amnesia suggests Shakespeare was the only dramatist before Beckett.
The problem is almost the reverse in musicals: too many golden oldies, not enough new work. Although there are always at least 25 musicals running in London, the form is suffering from a failure to uncover fresh talent. Lloyd Webber soldiers on. Sondheim, who is 80 next year, is rightly celebrated. But where are their successors? The cost of staging a new musical is, of course, astronomical. Economic factors are at the heart of my final concern, which is that the commercial theatre lacks the diversity it once had and increasingly waits for the subsidised sector to take the risk: would any West End producer have dared stage Enron and Jerusalem if they had popped through the letter box?
As always with theatre, utopia remains an unachieved destination. But at least in the last year we've kept it in our sights. I take heart from the fact that our theatre attracts young people, engages with big issues and sees itself as a vital part of society rather than a mere factory of dreams.
Michael Billington has been the Guardian's theatre critic since 1971.
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Guardian: British theatre isn't a utopia yet – but we're on our way
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