Michael Billington: Taking centre stage

Michael Billington: Taking centre stage

Four decades of expertise lie behind veteran theatre critic Michael Billington's new book State of the Nation: British Theatre since 1945 (Faber, November), which explores the relationship between theatre and society over the years since the Second World War.

As the longstanding drama critic for the Guardian (he took up his post in 1971), Billington remembers a multitude of famous first nights first hand: Tom Stoppard's "Travesties"; David Hare's "Plenty"; Pinter's "Betrayal"; Trevor Nunn's famous "Macbeth", with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench; Sarah Kane's explosive "Blasted". And now that he is, as he puts it, "on the final furlong" of his career, he has been feeling a need to reassess: "I wanted to see if there was some shape and structure to what I'd been doing for the past 35 years, and at the same time to write a book about what's happening in society. They are the two things that drive me: the passion for the theatre on the one hand, and on the other, this curious fascination for politics. I wanted to try to assess what the theatre has meant to me, what it has meant to other people, what it has actually said, and whether it has been an agent of change in Britain."

In the foyer of the Lyttelton Theatre on the South Bank, with the bell calling audiences back from their interval drinks to the matinee performance ringing insistently in the background, Billington warms to his theme. "What intrigues me is that there are lots of times when I think theatre is reflecting what is going on [in the broader society], and there are other strange moments when it's starting to nudge society in certain directions." He cites the comedy revue, "Beyond the Fringe". "There is this great myth that in 1956, 'Look Back in Anger' changes everything overnight. Not true. I think the really pivotal event in terms of social change is 'Beyond the Fringe' in 1960."

Billington, then a student, was present at the first performance in Edinburgh. "I didn't come out going, 'Society is on the verge of upheaval', but I think what 'Beyond the Fringe' did was to encapsulate and express a mood of irreverence among the young; a refusal to defer to older, wiser and senior figures, a willingness to lampoon the prime minister, trades unions, vicars, dons—all the people you were supposed to revere. The jokes spread among the young, there was a long-playing record of it, and I remember going to parties where people would put on the LP, or parrot the jokes by heart. Because of that show, a whole generation was enfranchised and liberated, so from there indirectly came Private Eye and 'That Was the Week That Was', and Britain was never quite the same."

Why Maggie loved Cats

In contrast, Billington argues in the book, in the 1980s the theatre was in thrall to Thatcherite values, as expressed through the rise of the musical and triumphs such as "Cats" and "Les Miserables". "I really do believe that the musical and Mrs Thatcher were very closely linked. In a way, Andrew Lloyd Webber becomes the perfect expression of what Mrs Thatcher was trying to do politically. Musicals offer an escape into a fantasy world, and they always seem to end with some kind of spiritual uplift; it chimed in with what Mrs Thatcher wanted people to feel—she came into Downing Street with a quote from St Francis of Assisi, so she was quite cunning at playing the spiritual card. And musicals can make bucketloads of money: they require entrepreneurial skill and marketing talent, and 1980s musicals made fortunes for all those concerned. Mrs Thatcher saw the musical as a role model, by making lots of money and making people happy—she never quite comprehended that there were other aspects to theatre as well. She lectured poor old Peter Hall [then National Theatre director] whenever they met: "Why can't you make money for Britain like nice Mr Lloyd Webber?"

Billington enthuses about the current regime at the National Theatre; under Nicholas Hytner, he says, the theatre has grasped the challenge of truly examining the nation: "Over the past few years it seems to me that the National has become a place where society is confronted with whatever the issues are and I think we should take more pride in this than we do. The fact that when David Hare writes a play about the origins of the war in Iraq, an interesting play, "Stuff Happens", part documentary, part fiction, and it is commissioned and put on in the National Theatre, the epicentre of theatre, that seems to me very extraordinary. I cannot imagine it happening in France, Germany, Italy. Not many countries would use their prime stage in their national theatre to discuss the most contentious issue of their time."