Simon McBurney on theatre for world theatre day

Simon McBurney (artistic Director of Complicite) for World Theatre Day (2018) (link here):

“Half a mile from the Cyrenaican coast in Northern Libya is a vast rock shelter. 80 metres wide and 20 high. In the local dialect it is called the Hauh Fteah. In 1951 Carbon dating analysis showed an uninterrupted human occupation of at least 100,000 years. Amongst the artefacts unearthed was a bone flute dated to anywhere between 40 and 70,000 years ago. As a boy when I heard this I asked my father

“They had music?”

He smiled at me.

“As all human communities.”

He was an American born prehistorian, the first to dig the Hauh Fteah in Cyrenaica.

I am very honoured and happy to be the European representative at this year’s World Theatre Day.

In 1963, my predecessor, the great Arthur Miller said as the threat of nuclear war lay heavy over the world: ’When asked to write In a time when diplomacy and politics have such terribly short and feeble arms, the delicate but sometimes lengthy reach of art must bear the burden of holding together the human community.’

The meaning of the word Drama derives from the Greek “dran” which means “to do”... and the word theatre originates from the Greek, “Theatron”, literally meaning the “seeing place”. A place not only where we look, but where we see, we get, we understand. 2400 years ago Polykleitos the younger designed the great theatre of Epidaurus. Seating up to 14,000 people the astonishing acoustics of this open- air space are miraculous. A match lit in the centre of the stage, can be heard in all 14,000 seats. As was usual for Greek theatres, when you gazed at the actors, you would also see past to the landscape beyond. This not only assembled several places at once, the community, the theatre and the natural world, but also brought together all times. As the play evoked past myths in present time, you could look over the stage to what would be your ultimate future. Nature.

One of most remarkable revelations of the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe in London is also to do with what you see. This revelation is to do with light. Both stage and auditorium are equally illuminated. Performers and public can see each one another. Always. Everywhere you look are people. And one of the consequences is that we are reminded that the great soliloquies of, say, Hamlet or Macbeth were not merely private meditations, but public debates.

We live in a time when it is hard to see clearly. We are surrounded by more fiction than at any other time in history or prehistory. Any ‘fact’ can be challenged, any anecdote can have claim on our attention as ‘truth’.

One fiction in particular surrounds us continually. The one that seeks to divide us. From the truth. And from each one another. That we are separate. Peoples from people. Women from men. Human beings from nature.

But just as we live in a time of division, and fragmentation, we also live in a time of immense movement. More than at any other time in history, people are on the move; frequently fleeing; walking, swimming if need be, migrating; all over the world. And this is only just beginning. The response, as we know, has been to close borders. Build walls. Shut out. Isolate. We live in a world order that is tyrannical, where indifference is the currency and hope a contraband cargo.

And part of this tyranny is the controlling not only of space, but also time. The time we live in eschews the present. It concentrates on the recent past and near future. I do not have that. I will buy this.

Now I have bought it, I need to have the next... thing. The deep past is obliterated. The future of no consequence.

There are many who say that theatre will not or cannot change any of this. But theatre will not go away. Because theatre is a site, I am tempted to say a refuge. Where people congregate and instantly form communities. As we have always done. All theatres are the size of the first human communities from 50 souls to 14,000. From a nomadic caravan to a third of ancient Athens.

And because theatre only exists in the present, it also challenges this disastrous view of time.

The present moment is always theatre’s subject. Its meanings are constructed in a communal act between performer and public. Not only here, but now. Without the act of the performer the audience could not believe. Without the belief of the audience the performance would not be complete.

We laugh at the same moment. We are moved. We gasp or are shocked into silence.

And at that moment through drama we discover that most profound truth: that what we thought the most private division between us, the boundary of our own individual consciousness, is also without frontier. It is something we share.

And they cannot stop us. Each night we will reappear. Every night the actors and audience will reassemble. and the same drama will be re-enacted. Because, as the writer John Berger says

“Deep within the nature of theatre is a sense of ritual return”, which is why it has always been the art form of the dispossessed, which, because of this dismantling of our world, is what we all are.

Wherever there are performers and audiences stories will be enacted which cannot be told anywhere else, whether in the opera houses and theatres of our great cities, or the camps sheltering migrants and refugees in Northern Libya and all over the world.

We will always be bound together, communally, in this re-enactment.

And if we were in Epidauros we could look up and see how we share this with a larger landscape. That we are always part of nature and we cannot escape it just as we cannot escape the planet. If we were in the Globe we would see how apparently private questions are posed for us all.

And if we were to hold the Cyrenaican flute from 40,000 years ago, we would understand the past and the present here are indivisible, and the chain of human community can never be broken by the tyrants and demagogue.”

Eurasia, new ways of seeing

Theatre and a play writing tradition remain vibrant in Britain partly as because one of the great playwrights was an English bloke called Shakespeare. Outside of this western tradition, there are many performance forms, many of which don’t place the writer in the same place. And some countries traditions don't have playwrights.


As local arts meets a global stage and the collisions and intersections ensue, it will be interesting to note how the arts scene develops. There is already a very valuable Asian arts, particularly Japan and China (from ancient to modern), market but more radical artists wish to claim their own ways of seeing.


This clash, I picked up reading, on recommendation a book looking at the history of Europe and Asia - debunking some of the artificial divides commentators have built up and observing the current jibes amongst cultural models (Dawn of Eurasia - Amazon link).  This from an arts lens.

“Arefe Arad is an artist in Tehran. She makes bodies by patching different fabric pieces together, and if the result evokes different kinds of human-size alien creatures and monsters that is very much deliberate. She told me she wants to create monsters, textile models close to mythical characters with no identity or individuality.

I met her at Etemad Gallery in North Tehran while spending a few weeks in the city, mostly among contemporary artists and gallery owners. Her sculptures are flexible, viscous, patched together in deformed shapes, a reflection –she said –on the everyday life of Iranian women. Stopping at Tajrish Square, I immediately understood what Arefe meant.

One young woman was going up the pedestrian bridge escalator wearing a black headscarf covering all her hair –very proper hijab few women in North Tehran are keen on –but she combined it with knee-high pink stiletto boots. The whole square turned to watch her walk.

These are not creative cultural hybrids but distorted chimeras. The authorities want a token of subjection and that is why every woman in Iran must sport her headscarf, wherever she is, as a public proclamation that her choices are, in the end, worthless. For some, the humiliation is powerful and deliberate. At the same time, they fight back by blemishing in every way they can the almost aesthetic dreams the clerics have developed for Iran. The result is not creative but destructive, just as the parties in North Tehran are less festive celebrations than distorted affirmations of the will against a stunting force.

When contemporary art arrived in Tehran in the final years of the Shah’s regime it was an opening for Western values and tastes. As the founder and inaugural director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art put it in 1979, since Iran already imported Western technology and science, it should import Western art as well. That project of imitation failed when the Shah was deposed and no one in Iran wants to repeat it. The art scene still represents the drive to break free of conventions –to become modern –but today it is a much more primal and destructive force, because there is no model left to follow. To become modern is no longer equivalent to becoming Western.

Talking to young Iranian artists, I learned one important lesson. While they were rebelling against the confined spaces of life in Tehran, they also insisted that they did not want to follow the same path as Europeans or Americans. Contemporary art had taught them that there is always a different way of seeing. Art must foresee other pictures, other worlds. Western modernity is for them just another form of tradition to be uprooted and overcome.

When discussing world politics today, we often revert to one of two models. The first, popularized by Francis Fukuyama, sees the whole world converging to a European or Western political framework, after which no further historical development is possible. Every country or region is measured by the time it will still take to reach this final destination, but all doubts and debates about where we are heading have been fundamentally resolved. The other model, defended by Samuel Huntington, is sceptical of such irreversible movement. The world it depicts is that of a clash between different civilizations having little or nothing in common, particularly since Western political culture will remain geographically limited. This book adopts a third view.

I agree with Fukuyama that the whole world is on the path to modern society, but there are numerous paths and, naturally, different visions of what a modern society looks like. Everyone is modern now, but there are different models of modern society. From this fact the essential terms of the new world order follow more or less directly. The hard distinction between modern and traditional has broken down, giving way to a deeply integrated world, but its most distinctive trait is the incessant competition between different ideas of how worldwide networks should be organized…”


I find the book maybe a little less insightful on Russia (or it may be I know Russia less) but fascinating on the Asia / Europe part. Amazon link here.

The current Arts blog, cross-over, the current Investing blog.  Cross fertilise, some thoughts on autism.  Discover what the last arts/business mingle was all about (sign up for invites to the next event in the list below).

My Op-Ed in the Financial Times  (My Financial Times opinion article) about asking long-term questions surrounding sustainability and ESG.

Current highlights:

A long read on Will Hutton looking at Brexit causes and solutions.

Some writing tips and thoughts from Zadie Smith

How to live a life, well lived. Thoughts from a dying man. On play and playing games.

A provoking read on how to raise a feminist child.

Some popular posts:  the commencement address;  by NassimTaleb (Black Swan author, risk management philosopher),  Neil Gaiman on making wonderful, fabulous, brilliant mistakes;  JK Rowling on the benefits of failure.  Charlie Munger on always inverting;  Sheryl Sandberg on grief, resilience and gratitude.

Buy my play, Yellow Gentlemen, (amazon link) - all profits to charity