Lyn Gardner on Theatre and Performance: Is Theatre Too Urban?

When Barney Norris’ first full-length play premiered in 2014, it was at the Arcola, a theatre in the heart of East London. But one of the things that made Visitors – which went on to win several awards – so unusual and a breath of fresh air was the fact that this story of ageing and dementia had a rural setting on a remote Wiltshire farm. As Fiona Mountford observed in a review in the Evening Standard, the play offered “a vision of the changing texture of Britain, as the deep continuities of rural tradition give way to bland metropolitanism.”

Norris’ exquisitely observed, quiet plays all draw on the landscape of his youth near Salisbury, and he is definitely not the first playwright to use the geography of his childhood in his plays.

Shakespeare was another country boy. In As You Like It, Rosalind and Celia escape the oppressive court for the countryside and the Forest of Arden. As a child, Shakespeare would have wandered in the real forest of Arden that once stretched from Stratford to Tamworth. The forest works its transformative power on Rosalind just as the woods work on the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In The Winter’s Tale the darkness of the Sicilian court is transformed into the light and joy of the sheep-shearing festival.

So Shakespeare was a man of both the city – London where he acted and wrote his plays – and also of the countryside: born and raised in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he also returned to die. His plays are full of the imagery of the countryside. He rather deliciously refers to Cleopatra as being “like a cow in June.”

But Shakespeare and Norris are the exceptions rather than the rule. The rural and its inhabitants have seldom featured in British plays of the last few hundred years, with playwrights predominantly preferring urban settings.

After all, the majority of theatres are in towns and cities so it is perhaps not surprising that even playwrights raised rurally move to the city to be part of the theatre world and start to write about urbanites. City-dwellers are still theatre’s predominant audience as they have been for hundreds of years. In his superb book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (Faber, 2005), James Shapiro concludes that “it is likely that a third of London’s adult population saw a play every month.”

Rural communities are far more scattered and difficult for theatre to reach. Just how far they are not being reached was demonstrated by Ace’s 2015 report on Rural Evidence and Data which found that only 4.6% of ACE’s National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) were based in rural areas, representing 2.5% of the overall NPO financial investment between 2015 and 2018. Even if those living beyond towns and cities want to go to the theatre, access can be difficult as theatres may be far away and there is poor public transport. Companies are sometimes reluctant to tour to areas with sparse populations as it dilutes ticket sales.

Given all these factors, it is perhaps not surprising that when the country has been portrayed in drama it has often been as backwards-looking (as in Arnold Wesker’s 1958 play Roots) or sinister (as in Martin Crimp’s 2011 play The Country). But then, of course, Shakespeare’s blasted heath in King Lear could hardly be described as hospitable, and the woods in Titus Andronicus are a place of danger and terrible acts. If both As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale offer an Arcadian view of the country, one promoted in Elizabethan England by Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, others see the country as something wilder and less benign.

The British fashion for plays in which characters talk at each other means that for over a 100 years plays were more likely to be set in high society drawing rooms (think Wilde) or living rooms (think Look Back in Anger or Ayckbourn’s suburban comedies) than in cow-sheds or on hills. With a few exceptions – the delicate plays of Robert Holman or Jez Butterworth’s mighty Jerusalem (2009) – the rural experience has seldom been charted. When it is, it is often as Jo Robinson puts it in Theatre and the Rural (Palgrave, 2016), “repeatedly defined in relation to the urban.” Oliver Goldsmith’s 1772 She Stoops to Conquer is a comedy of manners that is typical in setting up the values of city and countryside in opposition to each other.

The dominance of city plays may also reflect the fact that while the experience of living in many major cities is often quite similar, rural experience is very different depending on whether you live in a village in Surrey or a croft in Scotland.

That is strongly reflected in the work of touring companies such as WildWorks and the theatre made by National Theatre Wales (NTW) and the National Theatre of Scotland. Both these national theatres “without walls” make theatre in different locations across their nations, with the work strongly reflecting both the landscape and those who live in those landscapes. A piece such as The Gathering (NTW, 2014) was embedded in the daily life of the shepherds who live and work on the mountains and made over a period of two years to offer both local audiences and those from farther afield a real sense of the beauties and brutalities of a way of life.

Of course, as playwright Kevin Dyer observed at an A Nation’s Theatre event I hosted in 2016 at Farnham Maltings, “not all plays written for rural touring have to have a tractor in them.” The work of Pentabus, based in Shropshire and described as “quietly radical” by the Stage’s Natasha Tripney, demonstrates that. The company has been in the forefront of developing new writing for rural touring, particularly in village halls, and has produced a number of playwrights who are penning work which is as hard-hitting as anything at the Royal Court. Joe White, whose emotionally nuanced rural play Mayfly was highly acclaimed at the Orange Tree Theatre in 2018, is a former artist in residence of a company whose banner is “in every village, field and street there is a rural story.”

In fact, even the Royal Court, famed for its gritty kitchen-sink dramas and urban realism, has increasingly looked beyond London to the countryside, most notably with Simon Longman’s bleakly beautiful Gundog (2018).

Some, including Barney Norris, have identified theatre’s increasing interest in the rural as one of the consequences of the Brexit vote. Programmers and artistic directors of theatres are recognising that, as the National’s Rufus Norris said after the vote:

Art always responds to the time… And this has been a huge wake-up call for all of us to realise that half the country feels they have no voice. If we are going to be a national organisation we must speak to and for the nation. Our principal response initially is to listen: to listen to that voice and art will follow from that.

That includes not just those who live in metropolitan areas but also the 17.6% of people who live in rural areas and whose lives have seldom been seen on our stages. Theatre talks a great deal about diversifying to include the stories of those who seldom get to take centre stage, and that must include those who live in villages and fields, not just those who live in the inner city.

In 2007, in an interview in the Daily Telegraph, the playwright Nell Layshon – one of the few playwright chroniclers of rural life – said: “Everyone noticed the shipyards going. Everyone noticed the coal mines going. Nobody noticed what happened to the farms.”

More than a decade on, a new generation of playwrights including Norris, White and Longman are making us take note, with quietly powerful plays that make us see that there is plenty of drama taking place in the countryside.

On Playwriting: An Interview with Barney Norris