Review: The Time Traveller’s Guide to British Theatre

When writing about theatre, one of the most difficult problems is bridging the gap between the vivacity of a live performance, and the more detailed concerns of textual analysis. In academic writing and histories of theatre, this issue is particularly acute. If you focus primarily on a text, how do you situate the interactions between the text and its concomitant community? How do you account for those people who make up the life of the theatre — namely, audiences?

Aleks Sierz and Lia Ghilardi’s new book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to British Theatre, attempts to inhabit the space between textual- and performance-based histories of theatre. Beginning with the coronation of Elizabeth I and concluding with the coronation of Elizabeth II, the book spans over four hundred years of British theatre, looking at the relationships between plays and their audiences. As a theatre critic and cultural geographer respectively, Sierz and Ghilardi’s approach combines textual analysis and cultural critique, situating the scripts and productions within their socio-economic contexts.

Aleks Sierz and Lia Ghilardi
Aleks Sierz and Lia Ghilardi

One of their devices for dramatising the past, and conceptualising a changing theatre demographic, is through the creation of “guides” for each chapter. As the time-travelling title might suggest, each of these characters is representative of an audience member from each of the eras that the book covers, from Elizabethan to “Modern” theatre. Speaking at MCS Arts Festival last week, the authors’ attachment to these characters shone through: Sierz commented that he “fell in love” with Gabriel, the guide to Regency theatre, and that he finds particular affinity with the Elizabethan guide’s tendency to “get lost in detail”.

Throughout the talk they revealed tantalising snippets of the book’s contents, from anecdotes about “buccaneer entrepreneurship” in early dramatic enterprises, to speculation about the introduction of electric lights changing audiences’ behaviour in the theatres. Tales about ingenious ways of circumventing censorship abound: this is without doubt a history of theatre that places high value on entertainment factor.

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But perhaps most provocative was their discussion of the future of British theatre. Staying with the time-travelling theme but moving beyond the scope of the book, this demanded a direct engagement with the current state of British theatre and its audiences. State funding and drama education played a central role, touching on previous government cuts to theatre subsidies, and the proposed installation of the EBacc in all state secondary schools.

Regular readers will spot a theme following on from my review of Jonathan Jones’s art and civilisation talk earlier in the week, Sierz and Ghilardi offering a similarly negative view of removing performing arts from the curriculum. Ghilardi expressed despair at the attitude towards the arts that underlies this decision, asking where future actors and theatre audiences will come from if drama is excluded from schools. Combined with reduced funding, which stops theatres from taking risks in terms of programming, staging, and casting, it undermines what Ghilardi termed the “artistic ecology” of the theatre. Assuming that these proposals go ahead, the future of British theatre (particularly outside of London) that Sierz and Ghilardi envisage is bleak indeed.

The talk was engaging, lucid, and entertaining, with the authors conveying their passion for both contemporary theatre and the historical events that constitute the material for their book. Clearly, Time Traveller’s Guide intends to draw in a readership who are not regular theatre-goers, as well as more established dramatic veterans. Perhaps it is through projects such as these, dramatising the theatre’s rich history, that future audiences will find their route into drama.

Leah Broad

The Time Traveller’s Guide to British Theatre is now available to buy, RRP £12.99. For more information about MCS Arts Festival and upcoming events, please visit their website.

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