Ioanna Blatsou, theatre critic for Efimerida Syntakton, Greece
Back in the late 90s, when I lived in London, the UK was in the EU, Tony Blair had led Labour to a landslide win, rave music was roaring out of clubs, in-yer-face theatre was all the rage, the National Theatre had a bias for the classics and standing ovations were a rarity.
Much has changed two decades on. When I saw five shows in London last week, I realised there had been some major unheralded shifts in the key themes of contemporary English playwriting, which now mainly focus on British identity post-Brexit.
Death of England, by Clint Dyer and Roy Williams, is a relentlessly pungent new play about mourning and identity, seen from an individual and a national perspective. “Let’s face some facts: we are shit, we are shit at everything! Because England now is nothing but an island of shit,” declares Michael, the play’s sole character.
It’s in-yer-face theatre meets Pinter in an exploration of angry nationalism and inner turbulence thanks to Rafe Spall’s demonic, blusterous delivery. It was bold of Rufus Norris to produce such an explosively provocative play at the National, but this seems to be exactly the kind of theatre audiences crave now: political plays that speak out the truth for people who feel they have been abandoned by their leaders; plays that put up a mirror for the audiences to look into and engage in some courageous self-reflection.
Death of England reminds me of an astonishing new Greek play called Sleep, Stella, Sleep, directed and written by cinematographer Yannis Economides. It poignantly delineates the deformities and malfunctions of Greek society that led to the crisis ravaging the country for more than a decade. Focusing on the dismantled bonds among family members and the dominance of a beastly patriarchal figure, Economides’s play, like Death of England, sheds light on the ailing cell of the family, which contaminates its individuals and, in turn, society.
From the Garden of Eden to Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, gardens allude to life, nations or the state of being. In Mike Bartlett’s play Albion, the garden is a clear metaphor for England itself. Audrey (a dazzling Victoria Hamilton) is keen on regenerating a neglected green space in rural England. “This is a major project of national importance,” Audrey admits, only to realise a few months later that “there are some things that can’t be restored”. It’s the gardener of the estate, the withering Matthew – impeccably portrayed by Geoffrey Freshwater – who insists on delivering the final line of the play: “A rose. We have to keep it.” Is it a metaphor for England, cut off from the garden of the European Union and destined to dry up and perish?
The Greek equivalent to Albion is a new robust work called Agrios Sporos (Wild Seed) by Giannis Tsiros. The wild seed of the title is a palpable metaphor for the pre- and post-crisis Greek who can develop roots in every single “soil” and survive against all odds.
As in Athens, the name of the game in London theatres in 2020 is diversity. In London you can opt for a West End musical such as the feelgood show Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, or Temi Wilkey’s jolly family drama The High Table, in which two British Nigerian women decide to get married and invoke their ancestral spirits to bless their union. If somebody wishes to encounter an all-British theatre experience, Witness for the Prosecution by Agatha Christie is the show to choose. Where once it was politicians who faced each other across the imposing chamber of London’s County Hall, now it is QCs Sir Wilfrid Robarts and Mr Myers who battle against each other to prove the innocence or guilt of Leonard Vole.
In Athens, you can choose among several courtroom dramas, including the immaculately structured 12 Angry Men at the Alkmini and the interactive Terror at Athinon – where the audience functions as the jury. If you look for the equivalent of Jamie Lloyd’s auspiciously deconstructed Cyrano de Bergerac in Athens, head for the Swedish classic The Father at the Apothiki, awesomely reimagined by director Vassilis Bisbikis.
In Athens there are 1,500 shows to choose from, with tickets priced from €10 to €25, whereas in London tickets range from £20 to £200. More and more shows in Athenian venues are played with English subtitles but unlike the British habit of eating and drinking during the show, food and drinks are not allowed in Greek theatre venues while the show is on.
Laura Cappelle, cultural critic, France
What’s the difference between a British comedy critic and a French one? The latter was out of professional luck long before the decline of newspapers. Writing about comedy isn’t really a job description in France, where the popularity of standup is very much a 21st-century thing. Before the mid-2000s, French comedians mostly favoured character-driven vignettes, led by prominent impersonators as well as such troupes as 1980s favourites Les Inconnus and Les Nuls.
Even the recent boom of English-style standup in France hasn’t led to renewed critical examination of the genre, which tends to be seen in highbrow circles as just a bit of fun. So when the Guardian, in an effort to promote the free movement of banter, looked for a French critic to weigh in on British standup specials, they settled on me – a theatre writer whose main claim to comedy expertise is many a Christmas spent watching the beloved 1979 play-turned-film Santa Claus Is a Stinker, a French classic that involves a character being chopped to pieces in the bathroom of a depression helpline’s offices.
While I’m told the British comedy scene is in rude health, not much of it has reached France since Monty Python and Mr Bean. I’ll admit the only active British comedian that came to mind was John Oliver, and he has been based in the US since the mid-00s. In my defence, there are practical hurdles for French viewers hoping to hone some British-style quips. Netflix France only offers a small number of the specials available to watch in the UK; many specials turned out to have been produced by the BBC, whose programmes are notoriously hard to access from abroad.
As a result, while American comedians such as Amy Schumer and Ali Wong are now fixtures on Netflix’s list of suggestions for French subscribers, few viewers are likely to come across Bridget Christie or Gina Yashere. It’s a shame, because a week’s exposure to them and some of their peers left me wanting more. There is a craft to British comedy that speaks to its longer history, and to the competition standups presumably face to make their mark on a crowded scene. Most routines were impressively paced, building on the natural rhythm of British speech; French intonation, which is much more even, doesn’t quite allow for the same musical variations.
If you’d asked me beforehand to come up with a police sketch of a British comedian, it would have looked a lot like James Acaster, whose Netflix-produced Repertoire is available in France. He is lanky and self-deprecating, and the storylines holding these four shows together would be too surreal for most French comedians.
Starting a performance on his knees? Pretending to be an undercover cop posing as a comic? Spinning an entire hour out of jury duty on a murder case? It’s masterful storytelling in addition to absurd fun, and clever enough to satisfy the most intellectual audience. Even his quip that he loves French cuisine and “that’s why this story takes place in a Pret a Manger” works in France now, since Pret has taken over the Paris high street.
The level of deprecation I saw is fascinating from a French perspective because, as a country, we’re just not very good at taking the piss out of ourselves. Many local comedians are masters of the humblebrag, as a way to come out of a vulnerable moment and still look cool. They wouldn’t be caught dead as Sarah Millican’s adventurous sex-averse persona in Thoroughly Modern Millican, yet her warm, mischievous relationship with her audiences is a joy to follow. Her Geordie accent has a sing-song unpretentiousness that is also easier to latch on to as a foreigner than, say, John Bishop’s Scouse, which left me puzzling over some jokes.
While French humour tends to be more risque (if you don’t know what that means, just watch Blanche Gardin on Netflix), there is much to love in the unabashed progressiveness of a number of British standups. Christie pulls no punches in Stand Up for Her, and her feminist observations hit home, from her take on Adam and Eve to a skit about an audition for a yoghurt advert that involved a man waiting for a woman inside her fridge. Yashere’s bluntness – whether she is describing her snoring or asserting that “we all see colour, otherwise we’d all be walking around dressed like clowns” – is a core part of her appeal. They understand that taking a clear stand doesn’t have to spoil the fun – a notion that France is still grappling with.
Juliane Streich, German music and culture journalist
The cities we Berlin teens wanted to live in were always British: London, Manchester, Bristol – those were the places our favourite bands came from. At the end of the 90s – before the no-frills airlines started – I finally made it to London thanks to a school exchange program. We rode around in the signature red buses looking for record stores and indie clubs, although we had barely any money and everything was incredibly expensive. As teenagers, we took every flyer and free magazine we could get our hands on and brought it home to decorate our bedroom walls, because we loved British music.
Almost all Germans did. It all started with the Beatles – the Hamburgers fell in love with them and the whole Bundesrepublik followed. Even in East Germany, where I grew up, two Beatles albums were released, and it felt as if every GDR citizen had them in their tiny record collection. Today, every music magazine and all the so-called experts still rate them as the best band ever.
From the Beatles onward, Britain heavily influenced musical development in Germany. Punk in the late 70s, postpunk and new wave in the 80s, trip-hop in the 90s: it all washed in from the UK. Finally, there was Britpop. Round here there was no such thing as fan fights over Blur v Oasis – if you were in to Oasis you also liked Blur, because it was the same genre. In hindsight, it seems like almost every British band in the 90s was cool, just because they were British: Pulp, the Verve, Manic Street Preachers, Supergrass, Suede.
These days are hard times for old Britpop fans. Some journalists (including from the Guardian) blame Britpop for Brexit, arguing that it flew the national flag for nostalgia. Without question, some of our British musical heroes have fallen, the most famous being Morrissey. We all loved him. Farin Urlaub, singer with punk band Die Ärzte, even dedicated a famous song – Sumisu – to him that translated as: “Whenever we were sad – and we were sad pretty often – we went home and listened to the Smiths.”
The song describes the relationship between teenagers in the 80s and Morrissey. We were sure he was left-wing, just like us – so he alarmed fans with what he said in an interview with Der Spiegel two years ago: “If you try to make everything multicultural, you will not have any culture in the end,” and “I feel sad that Germany has become the rape capital of Europe … it coincides with the open borders and the free flow.” We were like: WTF? Aren’t open borders and multicultural movements a gain for every music scene, and for culture above all?
Disappointed and in disagreement, we needed other bands to listen to. Although we aren’t sad any more, we’re often angry, and who can we turn to? The UK. British rap is much more political than most German hip-hop, which is also angry, but often in a sexist or racist way. By contrast, Nothing Great About Britain by Slowthai is an album that deals with Brexit and nationalism with intelligence, humour and aggression. And there is Dave, who just called Boris Johnson a racist at the Brit awards. Or Kate Tempest who sings: “Europe is lost, America lost, London lost / Still we are clamouring victory”. There are exciting punk bands such as Idles, or bands that defy genre, such as the great Sleaford Mods. They are all admired.
Even though there are still British superstars such as Adele, Ed Sheeran or Amy Winehouse (always in our hearts!), there is no such thing as “British music” any more. These days it doesn’t matter where musicians come from. You love them because of their image, their quirks, their personality and of course their music, but none of this is bound to a national style or character. That is no Brexit-related phenomenon – it is a global development. Thanks to the internet you have access to billions of songs and artists. Music is on your phone, your laptop, everywhere you want. And it could be from any country.
So London isn’t the place of our dreams any more. It’s too expensive, too boring, too fancy, too sleek. Today, in cities around the world – even in gentrified Berlin – we find clubs that are more exciting and gigs that are more mind-blowing. Maybe because by now, many international and multicultural artists have moved there – among them the British.
Michał Oleszczyk, film critic, Poland
I’m a child of communist-era Poland. Born in 1982, I recall the acute scarcity of 1980s –– and the periodic shocks of visits to the affluent west. I was born to a teacher mum and a doctor dad: the first in their families to have had a university education. My great-grandparents were dirt-poor farmers in the countryside with no electricity. I teach film studies at the University of Warsaw and that’s largely due to the huge social advancement made possible by the communist welfare state –– one that I hate for having destroyed civic virtue in Poland, and yet one that I need to credit for making me who I am. Nobody said being Polish was simple.
After communism fell in 1989, class became a dirty word. Poverty in Polish film, if portrayed at all, had an almost metaphysical heft to it: no film-maker dared to explore its causes in government policies. One was either “successful”, or thrown on to the trash heap of doomed deprivation.
Had it been not for the British cinema of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, Polish audiences in the 1990s would have forgotten what class meant. We were drawn to films such as Riff-Raff, Raining Stones and Secrets and Lies. With their focus on working-class characters full of vitality, these films offered a freshness missing from our cinema. Years later, I understood where that affinity and respect for the everyday life of the disenfranchised stemmed from. A moment in Lindsay Anderson’s brilliant Every Day Except Christmas never fails to move me: the film-makers thank their subjects (porters at Covent Garden market) for being who they are and doing what they do.
In Poland, the class alienation of the late 1990s was near-total: the urban intelligentsia aspired instead to Woody Allen’s New York City, where each night seemed to bring a new gallery opening , intellectual flights of fancy and erotic possibilities. The catastrophic process of shutting down vocational schools was triggered at the same time –– why produce workers when we can have intellectuals and business-people instead? At the same time, a similar betrayal of the working-class in the UK was being fiercely analysed in the work of Loach, Leigh, and others. We loved their films but we failed to recognise that we were following the same perilous path those works decried.
Around 2004, many of my friends started emigrating to the UK. Just as many of us were finishing universities, Poles of my generation came to the realisation that even a menial job in the UK paid better and brought firmer prospects than a university degree could warrant in Poland. Our class consciousness grew sharply and rapidly.
Now the EU door is being slammed shut. Just as the UK shows its less-welcoming face, Poland is undergoing a deep crisis of national unity, as populist politicians are tearing the social fabric apart by pitting citizens against each other (most recently by scapegoating the LGBTQ+ community). One ritual that didn’t change is that last year I went to see another movie by Ken Loach: Sorry We Missed You, about a package carrier with a precarious existence inside the nightmare of late capitalism. The voice of the 83-year-old British director felt as fresh as ever –– only this time, there was no mistaking that he was speaking of Polish experience, too. Ruefully, we had caught up to Loach’s vision.
For me, British cinema remains exemplary in bringing class awareness to the fore while maintaining the highest artistic standards. The social sensitivity of films such as Joanna Hogg’s privilege-examining The Souvenir, Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend is something I hope to see in Polish films one day. Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War, as beautiful as it is, historicises class struggle by placing its cross-class romance firmly in a black and white, 1:1.33-ratio.
And yet our social reality is so deeply complex right now, it seems ripe for artistic exploration. Class tensions between Polish millennials and boomers are exploding. The urban and the rural areas are at sharp ideological odds. And then, there are the immigrant communities: most notably the Ukrainians, but also others. A gay British couple I know recently moved to a postindustrial city in Poland and are eagerly exploring the Polish artistic scene, even as one of them commutes daily to Warsaw to work for an international corporation. How I would long to see a film on people like them: carving out a space for themselves in a post-Brexit world and enriching Polish society by their presence.
Neringa Černiauskaitė, artist and commentator, Lithuania
When it comes to my relationship with British culture, this whole article could simply be a list of the iconic bands and singers the UK gave us. Or it could be a list of film directors, artists, writers or historical sites. My mum’s favourite band was the Beatles, my dad’s the Rolling Stones. These days, we play grime at parties.
With more than 200,000 Lithuanians settled in the UK, British culture is intertwined with almost every family in Lithuania. So for those of us reading the news on our smartphones on the morning of 24 June 2016, during the Midsummer weekend – the most celebrated festival after Christmas in the Baltics – it was one of the most bizarre, surreal, hard-to-believe experience we’ve ever had. Dark uncertainty crept in about the Britain we thought we knew, and stayed there, growing.
I briefly lived in London, and often visit the UK to install shows by Pakui Hardware, the artistic duo that I run with Ugnius Gelguda. To me, experiencing British culture was like being inside Zadie Smith’s White Teeth: dense, transgressive, ironic, full of friction and with intriguing chance encounters.
Despite struggling to cover their ever-increasing rents and public transport tickets, contemporary artists, curators and writers have clung to London for its dynamism, its compulsive attraction and also its indifference to who you are.
The city’s anonymity – animosity almost – brought people together in order to survive. There, acquaintances grew into friendships, friendships grew into communities, communities into art spaces, organisations, and advocacy groups. These smaller community-driven organisations actively pointed to, criticised and took action on faulty points of the status quo of the art world, forcing even large-scale institutions to change their funding and mediation policies in London and other British cities.
Here we stumble on the most obvious and prevalent problem today not only in the UK, but the world in general: the urban-rural divide. The British culture I’ve been discussing proliferates in cities – which serve as havens for outsiders, “deviants” from the norm. Rural areas cultivate a more homogenous, white version of British culture. No wonder nationalism and protectionism have been exponentially growing over the past couple of decades, and with the help of populist politicians, are thriving today.
It is precisely this conservative, enclosed and frankly dangerous “culture” that has proliferated and been elevated in Britain after Brexit. Immediately after the Brexit deal was signed, the first signs of open and normalised hostility towards anyone and anything that does not comply with this new identity politics spilled out immediately, for instance on the BBC’s Question Time. Not to mention the recently passed policy on performers’ visas, making it increasingly difficult to maintain a dynamic and vital cultural exchange between the UK and the rest of the world. It is immensely sad, not only for us foreigners, but to also see British artists devastated by those surreal and dark shifts in their country.
This summer, in July, Ugnius Gelguda and I will have our first institutional solo show in the UK at Baltic centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead. “Finally something Baltic in Baltic,” commented some after we announced this news. It’s not going to be the first Baltic-Baltic exchange, however – a few of our artists have already been presented there. It only shows how vibrant the cultural exchange between Britain and other countries has been. This vital flow of cultures, of people, of ideas is what constitutes British culture. At least in my view. Please don’t build a dam to stop it. Build dikes to protect the island from rising sea levels.
Mattias Bergqvist, chief TV critic of Swedish newspaper Expressen
Naturally it was Phoebe Waller-Bridge who was the last piece of the puzzle, confirming that it’s fine to talk dirty and be something of a monster, as long as you do it with a British accent.
Like so many others around the world, I am obsessed with Fleabag – season two was last year’s best TV after Chernobyl. That Waller-Bridge’s series isn’t more successful in Sweden is partly the fault of Amazon for not investing enough time and money here, and partly the fault of the majority of Swedish TV viewers: they’re just not ready for a new wave of challenging, genre-bending British television.
Of course, that last sentence is prejudicial, but still, the facts remain: here in the north, new episodes of Midsomer Murders attract far more viewers than a new season of Line of Duty. It’s weird, I know.
There have been some successes over the years, obviously. Downton Abbey was a big hit in Sweden – I’ve never had so many angry emails as when I wrote about Matthew Crawley’s necessary death. The success of The Crown also showed that the Swedish crowd are still hungry for British costume dramas.
For a long time it was through SVT, the Swedish equivalent of the BBC, that the best British shows got a window here. Nowadays it’s easier, with Netflix, HBO Nordic, Amazon and others., which have allowed us to discover and enjoy Bodyguard, Sex Education, the wonderful Derry Girls and the fantastic first season of The End of the F*** ing World.
But still, I envy you. When The Bridge was broadcast, the show’s creator Hans Rosenfeldt and I often talked about how difficult it is to write dialogue for interrogation scenes. You have the master of that in Jed Mercurio. You also have two of the very best in Waller-Bridge and Sally Wainwright, and you take better care of and value scriptwriters more than in Sweden.
Still, and I write this with respect: I loathe Britannia and get tired just thinking about The Stranger on Netflix. Also, what painful disappointments Catherine the Great, Dracula and A Christmas Carol were.
Around the world, more and more shows are produced and the ones that dare to push boundaries and test new, surprising ways to win viewers’ hearts are fewer and fewer – even if there is more TV than ever before.
In this regard, and with a few exceptions, it is surprising that British television isn’t at the forefront globally. Sure, not everything can be as smart as Killing Eve, as brave as Top Boy or as humanly funny and tragic as Catastrophe. But when British TV is great it is really great: as a TV critic, I would love to see a new show that I can’t stop thinking about and, like Fleabag, want to analyse to pieces.
I want something that melts my heart and brings tears to my eyes of either laughter or sorrow. And well, it’s bound to happen, since Brits can say almost anything and still make it sound polite and charming.
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