What draws British playwrights to Europe?

| by Lyn Gardner

Tags: Culture after Brexit series

In the UK, do we take our European identity for granted? Our Culture after Brexit series continues with acclaimed writers Simon Stephens, David Greig and Zinnie Harris telling Lyn Gardner how artists in other European countries inject new meaning into their plays

Simon Stephens Fatherland image Manuel Harlan 2Fatherland, by Simon Stephens, Scott Graham and Karl Hyde. Photo: Manuel Harlan

"My view was that it was more important to make it and be successful in Berlin than New York because that's where David Bowie made it," says English playwright Simon Stephens.

While there may be a touch of jokiness about that statement from the famously music-loving Stephens, it also reflects the feeling of many of the UK's leading playwrights. For many, having their plays produced in other European countries is not only a genuine thrill; it has an impact on the plays they are writing now and on how they are writing them.

"In Germany the centrality of the director raises questions about the function of the play text," says Stephens. "When I began writing for the theatre I thought the function of a play script was to describe a night in the theatre. I realise now that that is not wrong, but it is culturally specific to the UK. It was exciting when my plays were starting to be performed in Europe to see people doing them in an entirely different way, differently from how I had imagined them."

For Stephens and many UK playwrights, having a play performed outside the UK is a chance to earn a living – something which is not always easy in Britain today, where new plays are seldom produced more than once. However, it also allows them to see how their writing is received in a different cultural and social context, with theatre in the rest of Europe often taking a more metaphorical approach than is traditional in the UK.

When Scottish playwright David Greig went to a production of his play Europe, produced in Chemnitz, Germany in 1996, he was surprised to see that it featured inflatable root vegetables. A scene on a station platform, where refugees are attacked by far-right thugs and the waiting room burns, included an inflatable carrot.

"Having a play in Europe brings an income, but it also sustains our creative life"

Zinnie Harris. Photo Susan TorkingtonZinnie Harris, playwright, screenwriter and Associate Director at Traverse Theatre. Photo: Susan Torkington

"When I asked why the carrot was there, the director said, 'David, don't you see the carrot is communism?'" says Greig. "I really like that: the way a play can become a vehicle for people to speak to each other in countries, and the way that the meaning changes depending on who is staging it and where, and in front of which audience."

Zinnie Harris, another Scotland-based playwright, agrees. "Having a play performed in Europe brings an income, but it also sustains our creative life," she says.

"How a piece lands in the UK is no indication of how it might land in Europe. How to Hold Your Breath didn't hit home at the Royal Court theatre in London, but in Greece it has played for over a year and clearly touches a nerve. In Greece they get that it is a play about refugees and it's a conversation they want to have. It's the same play but it's different too, and that's fascinating to see as a writer and it feeds back into the artistic process. It allows you to speak to a much broader audience than if you were only writing for the UK."

Greig says that his play The Events, inspired by the violent acts committed by Anders Breivik at a summer camp on the island of Utøya in Norway in 2011, seems to "take on its own peculiar resonance wherever it is performed."

"A play can become a vehicle for people to speak to each other in countries"

David Greig Artistic Director of The Lyceum. Photo credit Aly WightDavid Greig, Artistic Director and joint Chief Executive at Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh. Photo: Aly Wight

"In France it was performed just after the Nice attack and it became about the man who drove the lorry," he says. "In Ireland it was about political violence, while in the US people see it in relation to school shootings such as Columbine. As a playwright you can't not be fascinated by that."

For Harris and Greig, access to a much bigger and broader audience has allowed them to follow their theatrical instincts – instincts which both feel have always had a strong European bent.

Greig says that his influence came more from Brecht and French playwrights than from UK writers. He believes that for playwrights living and working in Scotland "the only way we avoid being absorbed by English culture is to use European culture as a rock to hang on to". He argues that, in the face of Brexit, the Scottish resistance to the pull of London will manifest itself in a theatre culture that will redouble its efforts in looking to Europe because "we will no longer be able to take our European-ness for granted; we will have to prove it".

Greig, who is also Artistic Director at the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, reckons he is "obsessed" with trying to forge partnerships with playhouses in Europe but admits that it can be difficult. "Sometimes it feels that all we bring to the table are our pleading upturned little faces," he says. There is a noticeable difference in subsidy between the UK and some countries in other parts of Europe.

Greig's journey to becoming a European playwright began right at the start of his career when he founded Glasgow-based experimental theatre group Suspect Culture with Graham Eatough and had great success touring other European countries. 

A European sensibility came naturally to Harris whose work has never been naturalistic and has a mythic scope.

"We will no longer be able to take our European-ness for granted"

Zinnie Harris This restless House Photo Tim Morozzo EdshowcaseZinnie Harris' Orestia: This Restless House performed by Citizen's Theatre. Photo: Tim Morrozo

For Stephens, the British playwright with perhaps the highest European profile outside the UK, the journey has been more roundabout. "My early plays such as Port and Christmas were highly naturalistic, " he says. "Some people compared me to D.H. Lawrence and David Storey. I loved the plays of Peter Gill. When my play Harper Regan opened at the Salzburg Festival, I remember Graham Whybrow [the former literary manager at the Royal Court] raising an eyebrow and saying 'Simon Stephens at Salzburg!' as if it was a highly improbable scenario given the kind of plays I had started out writing.

For Stephens, like Harris and Greig, seeing his own work produced in other parts of Europe – and most crucially seeing other work by other European playwrights and directors – has been a game changer.

“Seeing the plays being produced [in other European countries],” he says, “was for me personally a bit like the beginning of modernism, when artists looked at work in non-western cultures and started seeing painting entirely differently, and understanding that it didn’t have to be just about representation. It was a moment when my eyes were opened. I would never have written Pornography, Nuclear War or even adapted The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-Time in the way I did if it wasn’t for the influence of German theatre and working with Sebastian Nübling. Nübling’s production of Pornography was a strong tangential influence on Curious Incident.”

In the UK the playwright and text are often treated with reverence. All three writers welcome an opportunity to see their scripts used in a different and often more collaborative way.

Harris says that in the UK productions feel as if they are designed to “serve the writer’s vision”. In other European countries, by contrast, the text is “the Lego” upon which the theatrical experience is built, and only one part of that experience.

"Sometimes you look at what has been done to your script and you go ‘good God!’"

web Simon Stephens Fatherland promo image photo PerouFatherland, part of LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre) 2018. Photo: Perou

“Of course, sometimes you look at what has been done to your script and you go ‘good God!’” Harris says. "But more often you look at it and go, ‘That’s really interesting.’ I like that a kind of dialogue is possible.”

Greig agrees. “I’ve had people in the UK ask me what it feels like to have someone ‘mucking about with your play’, but it is always the mucking about that makes it exciting.”

Stephens thinks that increasing numbers of UK playwrights and theatremakers want to work with companies in other European countries and tour to Europe outside the UK. He believes that more and more UK playwrights are seeing theatre from other European countries and are being influenced by it.

Greig echoes these thoughts. “I look to so many Scottish artists and playwrights, people such as David Leddy of Fire Exit and Matthew Lenton of Vanishing Point,” he says. “You can see how steeped they are in European theatre and how it influences what they make – and how what they make then influences what is made in Scotland.”

Stephens says: “When I first went to the German language theatre festival Theatertreffen in 2007, nobody in the UK knew what it was. Last time I went, every British theatre director under the age of 35 was there.” The times they are a-changing.


Lyn Gardner is Theatre Critic for The Guardian, Associate Editor of The Stage and an author of children’s books. @lyngardner

This feature is part of Culture after Brexit – a conversation, curated by the British Council, about the future of the cultural relationship between the UK and the European Union after Britain exits the EU. To this conversation we will invite journalists, artists, arts professionals and policy makers to join a robust discussion about what Brexit means for the creative and cultural industries, and what a new post-Brexit cultural relationship could, and should, look like.


Follow the Culture after Brexit series:


> Holland Festival: What does theatre have to say about democracy?

> Ruth Mackenzie: "There's an awful lot of British theatre I couldn't programme"

> Lyn Gardner: Making a new future at the Holland Festival

> Outdoor arts: "We need to keep the traffic between the UK and Europe"

> Edinburgh: Will Edinburgh continue to be a marketplace for European theatre?

> Artsadmin: Two insider views on how Brexit will affect UK arts

> Tim Etchells: "When we first went to Europe we found another world"



Sign up to our newsletter