Timothy Ramsden looks at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre, which like the city itself has survived tough times – and meets its Artistic Director who is determined tokeep on doing so.

A history of drama and war.

Round the back of Coventry Cathedral are some stones, several feet below the surrounding ground-level; a remaining fragment, we’re told, of a Benedictine monastery founded in 1043 by local lord Leofric, possibly under his wife’s influence. She became more famous than her husband and an 11th century celebrity when she campaigned for lower taxes by riding round the city naked on horseback. Godiva might be claimed as Coventry’s first known performance artist, and maker of political theatre.

The monastery lasted half a millennium, until Henry VIII privatised church properties, selling them to his friends, while retaining a fair portion for the nation (i.e. himself). During those centuries the city acquired a new dramatic connection in its Mystery Plays, the best-known fragment of which is the lyric known as the Coventry Carol.

The city has seen warfare along the way. In the mid-17th century it was strongly for the Roundheads, treating the Cavalier prisoners holed-up in a city centre church with a brusque lack of communication that gave rise to the term ‘sent to Coventry’. But the most famous war episode came on 14 November 1940, when the city’s manufacturing industry (including wartime munitions) made it the target of over 500 German bombers.

Along with factories and homes, the Cathedral was reduced to a shell. What remained then remains now, but right by its side is the new Cathedral, completed in 1962, so far standing half a century compared with the Benedictines’ half-millennium stay.

Resurrection time.

That wartime devastation left its mark on Coventry in a post-war determination to rise (the new Cathedral’s architect, Sir Basil Spence called his book on the project Phoenix at Coventry) and turn destruction into something positive. The town’s twins are war-torn cities across Europe, such as Dresden, Sarajevo – and Belgrade, which donated much of the timber used to construct the new theatre’s auditorium.

So when Coventry’s new theatre opened in 1958 the name was a declaration of internationalism and optimism. Just as the new Cathedral would look out onto the city and have at diagonal corners chapels devoted to Unity and Industry, the new theatre, seating 858, would look outward on to the world.

It certainly looked to the new dramatic world. It was here that one of the new generation’s key works was premiered, between 1958 and 1960. Arnold Wesker’s ‘Trilogy’ was a progress of political hope from Jewish East London in the fascist thirties to the (then) present day. Its first play Chicken Soup with Barley was revived last year at London’s Royal Court, while the central drama Roots ends with one of theatre’s most thrilling moments of self-realisation.

The Belgrade returned to Wesker, premiering The Four Seasons – a play possibly stylistically ahead of its time – in 1965. Meanwhile it became the first company to develop a Theatre in Education arm, touring schools with programmes involving performances and interactive workshops, often built around a social or political issue. That would make it a battleground for the future, but the theatre in education movement spread through many repertories, bringing drama direct to schools, nurseries and youth centres over subsequent decades, and training new actors in an open relationship with audiences while widening many young people’s ideas of what theatre could be.

Hard times and a new rebirth.

But as times changed and funding dried up the Belgrade’s initial injection of purpose tended to evaporate, or have to find new channels. One of these was a scruffy old building across the road behind the main theatre, the studio where the basic facilities and dilapidated feel contrasted some strong new scripts.

And as the main-house became increasingly a place to receive touring productions rather than claim its own artistic identity, and as the tours were geared to a popular, often musical, taste, the Belgrade seemed to be settling into an undistinguished middle-age. Only an annual summer Arts Alive programme of new work in short runs across various venues with a ‘Made in Coventry’ stamp kept any flame of adventure flickering.

Two things have happened in the past decade to alter that. One involved an extended closure for refurbishment – along with redevelopment of the surrounding area into a piazza, with fountains by the theatre’s side and restaurants on the track to a new well-lit, clean and reasonably priced multi-storey car park. Original murals, long covered over, have been revealed in the foyer and the old studio has been replaced by the gleaming B2 within the main building, allowing more technically complex productions in a smaller arena.

B2 has the 18th-century playhouse feel of places such as the South Bank’s Cottesloe; intimate yet epic as required, with just the danger that, as it’s at the far end of the building, by the bar and between the toilets, it could become something of a ghetto.

New director; new direction.

Equally important was the appointment of Hamish Glen as Artistic Director in 2003. Brother of the more famous Iain (actors tend to be more widely-known than directors), Glen had established himself in Scottish theatre, notably as boss at Dundee Rep, which he turned into a leading Scottish venue with the creation of an 11-strong acting ensemble in 1999.

Its development was the culmination of his 11-years in Dundee. And the reason for his leaving. “I wanted to be sure it would be part of the Scottish theatre infrastructure and not rely on me,” he says.

He was head-hunted for Coventry. It must have been a sharp cultural change, from the smaller world of Scottish theatre, where Dundee’s star was continuing to rise, to the rep in the English Midlands which, four and a half decades after its opening with high aspirations, was a place where “the area and the buildings were run-down, staff morale was very low.”

Glen aimed to restore the Belgrade’s home-built productions, to “reclaim it as a producing house. When I came the only people not at the Belgrade were actors, writers, designers. But there were plenty of HR and development people.” He moved to restructure the staff – a sometimes painful process as he admits.

Building the repertoire.

This revival in producing, and outreach, work was aided by the major refurbishment of 2007. His aim to “produce exciting theatre” could be that of any artistic director. But he had a clear idea in mind to combat a situation where audiences in English theatres were being offered “the same kind of show you could see anywhere. Co-productions but with nothing distinctive to a lot of the repertoire. I wanted to recapture the radicalism and internationalism expressed in Coventry’s twinning and its Cathedral.”

So he produced work by European playwrights, more or less familiar, including Ödön von Horváth, Ferdinand Bruckner, Brecht, Lorca and Ingmar Bergman. And that’s something that lies behind the current season. Look at a Belgrade season brochure for spring 2012 and there’ll be plenty of popular visits, theatrical and musical, with youth and community events.

But the home-produced, sustained 3 or so week runs include Nora, Ingmar Bergman’s version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, picking up on the 2008 production of Bergman’s own Scenes from a Marriage (originally a TV series) which opened the new B2 with Iain Glen and Imogen Stubbs directed by a director who had started out at the Belgrade, Trevor Nunn.

Nora’s in B2 as well, where it’s been followed by Glen’s own production of Stars in the Morning Sky, Russian writer Alexander Galin’s play about prostitutes swept off Moscow’s streets during the 1980 Olympics and shut in an old church. Revived in England’s own Olympic year, the production shows B2 in its most open form, the stage stretching right up to the audience in a three-sided format, the women’s old beds and dirty mattresses thrust in the face of doubtless house-proud Coventry.

The final moment, when the women climb to the roof for the nearest they will get to Olympic glory, a quick sighting of the torch carried past in the distance, is the culmination of a gap between official society and its outcasts that seems increasingly appropriate to this country right now.

Strindberg for Easter.

It overlaps with guest director Joe Harmston’s revival of The Father by August Strindberg. This makes a strong dose of lamp-throwing misogyny for Easter. The idea was that Harmston, with his commercial track-record, might attract a crowd-drawing actor to the title role of an army Captain taunted by his wife over the paternity of their daughter.

A former member of the youth theatre, now established in film, was approached but nothing came of it, so Strindberg, who died 100 years ago, must rely on his own drawing-power. This isn’t exactly great, which is a pity for, tough though his plays are, they have an intensity of passion and this one, perhaps more than the much more frequently performed Miss Julie or the truly gruelling Dance of Death, shows the author’s fascinated antipathy towards women as a rich argument, far less one-sided than an outline might suggest.

It’s a trio with its own coherence says Glen. “The Father and Nora are classic battles of the sexes. The Father was Strindberg’s answer to Ibsen, and they were the start of the theatrical battle of the sexes that led to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Long Day’s Journey into Night” – two giant American marital tussles seen in Dundee.

Stars is tangential to the same matter, beside its Olympic connection. Still, it’s a risky business as – well, business – to programme such plays. “I do it by having low box-office budgets and living within them. Not by relying on 95% (sales) for Strindberg and heading for a car-crash.”

A theatre of the city…

And Glen puts faith in the city’s population to try things out, as in his last job. “Local people wanted to see what Dundee Rep was doing, even if it was unfamiliar.” Here he hopes they’ll say “We’ve liked the last five things at the Belgrade so we’ll try this. And despite the recession there have been developing audiences.”

That’s the last recession; things are more difficult still now. “Cuts to come will attack the critical mass of produced work and it is very difficult to find co-producers for the likes of Stars or Strindberg.”

So the critic of sameness and co-productions is being forced into them now? Yes, but on his own terms, being determined to keep the international element in such plans as a new piece about jazz musicians in Nazi Germany. And Glen is pleased with last year’s co-production of Uncle Vanya (another play seen in his days at Dundee), with London’s Arcola Theatre.

The Scottish link has added another element to the Belgrade in recent years. The Belgrade was the only chance for England theatregoers to see Dundee Rep’s Proclaimers musical Sunshine on Leith south of the border, while Scottish writers such as Chris Hannan and Forbes Masson have had work at the Belgrade – though Glen points out Hannan moved to Coventry entirely independently (and Masson has spent time in nearby Stratford-upon-Avon with the Royal Shakespeare Company, one of several Scottish actors brought in by former Glasgow Tron director Michael Boyd in his time as RSC supremo).

…with plays for the city.

Another element in Glen’s Belgrade programming is new plays with a local connection. In May there’s a revival of the 2010 success about Coventry’s 1987 FA Cup triumph We Love You City, a co-production with local company Talking Birds and written by Birds’ Joint Artistic Director Nick Walker.

And Coventry playwright Alan Pollock’s One Night in November comes back to the city’s war legacy. Seen first in B2 it was revived on the main stage and will be again before touring other cities with war-torn pasts. This is no sentimental journey to good old days. Glen points out it shows the bombing being followed by looting, while it also argues the case that, once Churchill’s government had realised the 14 November raid was targeted on Coventry, it made no effort to prevent or limit the destruction, wanting a devastated city (though not London) to encourage America to join the allies.

Right now, any potential devastation is likely to be financial, with threats of major cuts in civic funding – a matter of necessity not desire. As will be the response, which is likely to focus new home-produced work in B2 with more of the crowd-pulling shows like Yes, Prime Minister and, of course, Joseph occupying the space that has known the Wesker Trilogy and international aspirations.

They are, of course, perfectly satisfactory pieces of theatre. But hardly with the excitement Hamish Glen clearly seeks. For that, better times must be awaited. Meanwhile, the job is to hang in and keep going. Another good wartime maxim for Coventry’s theatre to take to heart.

The Father by August Strindberg – main stage to 14 April 2012.
We Love You City by Nick Walker – B2 8-26 May 2012.

Tickets: 024 7655 3055.

2012-04-05 10:35:07

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