Conference Report: “Nation, Nationhood and Theatre”

“Nation, Nationhood and Theatre”: 26th Annual Conference of the German Society for Contemporary Theatre and Drama in English (CDE)

Reading (Department of Film, Theatre & Television at the University of Reading/UK),
29 June–02 July 2017

Julia Boll (Konstanz, Germany)

The 26th CDE conference, hosted at the Minghella building (Dept. of Theatre and Film) at the University of Reading, provided a platform to discuss the representation of issues of nation and nationhood in contemporary theatre and drama in English, a very topical theme in the year after the referendum on Britain’s EU membership, and in times of a global rise of nationalisms and populist movements.

The conference started with a welcome address by local organisers Vicky Angelaki and John Bull. They stressed the uniqueness of CDE and how the background of many members of the society is intricately connected to questions of nation and nationality. They also commented on the society’s spirit of community, reflected in the practise of avoiding parallel sessions, and then spoke about the critical momentum of the conference, the case of worrying nationalism, of jingoism, and how theatre might be the best way of approaching these issues.

The first day opened the conference with the first keynote, given by Dan Rebellato (Royal Holloway, University of London) on “Nation and Negation (Terrible Rage)” (chaired by Clare Wallace, Charles University Prague). Rebellato pointed at the correlation of educational level and leave/remain vote in 2016’s Brexit referendum, coming to the conclusion that the remain vote was strongly connected with financial capital, cultural capital, and therefore also theatre capital, wondering whether the theatre may have abandoned ‘the poor’. He then introduced his development of a concept of ‘placenessless’ in British theatre.

The subsequent conference warming took place at the university’s Park House Bar.

Friday began with the conference’s first panel, focusing on nation and race. Lynette Goddard (Royal Holloway, University of London – “#BlackLivesMatter: Remembering Black Deaths in Custody, Race Riots, and British Police”) spoke on the disappearance of Mark Duggan’s story in Gillian Slovo’s The Riots (2011) and Alecky Blythe’s Little Revolution (2014), comparing them with Oladipo Agboluaje’s 2009 adaptation of Kestor Aspden’s The Hounding of David Oluwale (2007). Goddard was interested in exploring how the ‘dead black man’ is given a voice in theatre. Questioning how far the ‘serve and protect’ mantra is actually applied across the board, across all communities, she described her own emotional response to Blythe’s play. Sophie Nield (Royal Holloway, University of London – “Reclaiming the Riot as Political Speech: the Problem of Theatre”) then thematised the ‘ongoing social cleansing’ in cities, stating that the riots in August 2011 were depoliticised as allegedly not being about anything ‘political’. Reflecting on what ‘riot’ meant and in how far rioting was a political act, Nield then argued that institutions and associations were being pushed to appear as representations of themselves and that opposition was forced to ‘speak in its own voice’ to prove its authenticity and legibility.

The second panel of the conference concentrated on contested territories and opened with Tom Cornford’s paper on “Experiencing Nationlessness: Staging the Migrant Condition” (Royal Central School of Speech and Drama). He focused on plays such as Zinnie Harris’ How to Hold Your Breath (2015), Isango Ensemble’s A Man of Good Hope (2016) and Zodwa’s Nyoni’s Nine Lives (2015), NTW’s 2015 Iliad and Alistair McDowall’s X (2016), all plays concerned with the existential nature of the migrant. In his analysis, Cornford drew on anthropologist Tim Ingold’s concept of the ‘in-between’, reading the current so-called ‘migrant crisis’ as a crisis of borders and questioning the concept of containment. Ellen Redling (University of Birmingham – “Fake News and Drama: National Identity, Immigration and the Media in Recent British Plays”) then looked at fake news and drama. She called fake news ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing’ and discussed whether verbatim drama offered greater access to ‘truth’, whether it was ethical and political by aiming to intervene against fake news and encourage the audience to consider the complexities of a problem. The panel’s final speaker was Elizabeth Sakellaridou (Aristotle University in Thessaloniki – “Conflicting Nations: conversing individuals in Lola Aria’s Minefield”). She used Lola Aria’s 2009 production to discuss its collaborative effort across national divides, pointing at the liminality of its performance method: a blurring of the lines between presentation and representation and of the lines between performers and the characters they portray.

The third panel of the conference concentrated on “Capitalist Legacies” and opened with William Boles’ paper on “Theatricalising the National Housing Crisis in Mike Bartlett’s Game and Philip Ridley’s Radiant Vermin” (Rollins College). In a close reading of both plays, he traced their portrayal of the UK’s current housing crisis. Benjamin Poore (University of York, “Before the Fall: Looking Back on the RSC’s ‘This Other Eden’ Season”) then revisited the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2001 season and discussed the key idea of what he calls ‘time-hop plays’. Christiane Schlote’s (University of Basel) paper “Drilling for England: the Oil Encounter in British Drama” introduced the concept of the ‘oil nation’ and petrol fiction as a growing and important interest. Schlote then pointed at the relative lack of petrol drama before discussing in greater detail Alistair Beaton’s Fracked! Or: Please Don’t Use the F-Word and Ella Hickson’s Oil (both 2016).

The second day closed with a conversation between playwright Jez Butterworth and Graham Saunders (University of Birmingham). Butterworth’s recent play The Ferryman had just transferred from the Royal Court to the Guilford, and a number of conference delegates went to see the show later that night. They spoke about Butterworth’s interest in areas ‘on the edge’, the hinterlands, and notions of liminality. Stating that ‘we are surrounded by death’, Butterworth explained that for him, all drama was about entrances and exits. A discussion with the panel attendants followed, reflecting on the fact that with The Ferryman, Butterworth, as an English playwright, wrote a play exploring ‘Irishness’.

Saturday started off with the fourth panel of the conference, “State of the Nation”. Paola Botham (Birmingham City University) gave the first paper, on “Anatomising the State-of-the-Nation Play in 21st Century Britain”. Referring to Michael Billington’s 2007 publication on the State of the Nation Play, she pointed out that he appeared to mourn the disappearance of a very specific kind of theatre writing. Botham suggested extending the notion of State of the Nation Play to a play of ideas that manages to link the private and the public, then discussed Simon Stephen’s Pornography (2007) and its sense of fragmentation as potentially mirroring the sense of fragmentation within Britain. Cyrielle Garson (University of Avignon – “Does Verbatim Theatre Still Talk the Nation Talk?”) argued that the entire country was currently, in the wake of political events of the past three years, going through a period of intense scrutiny. She suggested reading verbatim theatre as a national ‘shadow archive’, pointing to plays concentrating on marginalised voices opposed to the general national identity narrative, such as The Meaning of Waiting by Victoria Brittain (2010) and A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer (Complicité and Associates – Bryony Kimmings and Brian Lobel in Association with HOME Manchester, 2016). The panel’s final paper by Yana Meerzon (University of Ottawa) on “Multiculturlism, (Im)migration, Theatre: National Arts Centre, Ottowa: the Case of Staging Canadian Nationalism” discussed Canada’s more recent institutionalised instruments of further enforcing its policy of multiculturalism by expanding to projects that can be likened to the concept of transitional justice. Canada’s National Arts Centre 2016-17 season “Theatre for the people” programmed the work of multicultural and indigenous artists. Meerzon argued that the NAC’s repertoire reproduced the cultural-political line of artistically affirming the ideological mechanisms constructing Canadian nationalism by bringing them to the country’s most prominent stage.

After coffee, playwright Alecky Blythe was interviewed by Chris Megson (Royal Holloway, University of London). They discussed Blythe’s verbatim pieces and her interest in ‘the periphery’. Blythe stressed that she has attempted to give lightness and humour space in her work. The conversation then moved on to the gestation process of some of her plays, such as London Road (2011) and Little Revolutions (2014).

After lunch, the conference continued with a panel on “Questioning National Narratives”, starting out with Camille Barrera’s paper “‘For we are American’: postmodern pastiche and national identity in Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns, a Post-Electric Play” (Freie Universitaet Berlin). Barrera investigated the relationship between the various versions of pastiche in the play and the notion of community in the play’s post-apocalyptic context. Tom Maguire (University of Ulster) then spoke on “Precarious women on and off the contemporary Irish stage” and discussed the conditionality of Irish citizenship and the implications of  ‘watching the working class’ in relation to recognition, voyeurism and containment, referring, amongst others, to Georgina McKevitt and Jacinta Sheerin’s Waiting for IKEA (2007) and Phillip McMahon’s Pineapple (2011). The panel’s final paper by Ciara Murphy (NUI Galway) on “Challenging state-led narratives through performance during Ireland’s Decade of Centenaries” looked at two plays from 2016, ANU Productions’ These Rooms and THEATREclub’s It’s Not Over, to analyse notions of witnessing and audience participation and disobedience.

The final day of the conference began with Liz Tomlin’s keynote “The State of the Nation Play: Only Ordinary People Please”. She focused on a political and philosophical trajectory of postdramatic models of performance and postdramatic and poststructuralist challenges to the State of the Nation Play. Introducing the concept of a ‘theatre of real people’ (as defined by Ulrike Garde and Meg Mumford, Bloomsbury 2016), Tomlin pointed at the construction of the remain-voters in 2016 Brexit referendum as in opposition to ‘the real people’ who voted for Britain to leave the EU, a categorisation that Tomlin calls a conflation of class and expertise. ‘The real people’ were thus constructed as ‘the left-behinds’, and fault lines were made up to run between the young and the old, university-educated vs. school leavers, immigrants/immigrant-descendants and those who claim a longer-standing family heritage within the country. Tomlin then looked at Rufus Norris and Carol Ann Duffy’s My Country: A Work in Progress (2017), a production that suggests matricide had been committed by the children of the country against Britannia. She then discussed Kaleider’s and Seth Honnor’s game play The Money (2015) as an example of participatory performance in which the people in the action were ‘real’ in the sense that they were spontaneously reacting in unrehearsed scenes.

The sixth and final panel of two papers focused on “Imagining the Nation”. Chris Megson (Royal Holloway, University of London) presented a paper on “England, Austerity and ‘Radical Optimism’ in the theatre of Anders Lustgarten”. Megson examined Lustgarten’s play on austerity, If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep (2013), in relation to the State of the Nation Play as well as to the Occupy Movement, arguing that Lustgarten’s approach of radical optimism might be the key for a theatre that could effect social transformation. In the final paper of the conference, “What State Are We In?”, Christine Kiehl (Université Lumière Lyon 2) spoke about Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica (2013) and the manipulative power of images in relation to claims of state and nationality.

The conference closed with a round table discussion. In relation to David Hare’s notorious statement (in Jeffrey Sweet’s early 2017 collection of interviews with playwrights, What Playwrights Talk About When They Talk About Writing) about the European theatre ‘infecting’ the British stage, several delegates discussed what was being talked talking about when talking about nation: the state of the nation play, or rather, the state of the nation state play. It became a moving discussion on nationhood and Europe, on what one thinks and feel the world is like and how this might jar with one’s experience.

The 26th annual conference of the German Society for Contemporary Theatre and Drama in English demonstrated how urgent and public as well as personal it is to discuss the nation, nationhood and the theatre at this point in time. The conference created a productive platform for an exchange between performers, scholars and students alike.

(Selected papers of the conference will be published in JCDE: Journal of Contemporary Drama in English, vol. 6.1, 2018.)