Country Facts about the UK
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All the world’s a stage? Not quite – but there are plenty of venues to satisfy lovers of UK theater. Though London’s West End is the commercial center of the entertainment industry, you’ll find artistic highlights all across the UK. Our guide gives a brief overview, from musicals to Shakespeare.
London: The Theater Capital?
It may not come as a surprise that most UK theater productions are staged in London. However, this imbalance in favor of the capital’s arts and entertainment world is being addressed. Recent initiatives have led to a renewed focus on UK theater in other places across the country.
There are now national theater companies in Scotland (National Theatre of Scotland) and Wales (National Theatre Wales for English-language plays and Teatr Genedlaethol Cymru for Welsh productions). Non-London venues, such as Opera North (Leeds) or The Crucible (Sheffield), have established successful reputations among fans of the performing arts. Stage plays, comedy acts, dance, and musical theater are a major part of cultural festivals, e.g. in Edinburgh.
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If you plan on attending a UK theater performance, in or outside London, check out the events calendar of The Stage. This is the leading newspaper for the British entertainment industry, particularly for UK theater. It now exists as a weekly print edition for insider news, reviews, and ads, a website featuring online directories related to UK theater, a mobile app, and social media channels.
If you consider going pro in UK theater, on or off stage, you should browse the classifieds section in The Stage. After all, this is the paper whose ads launched the careers of playwright John Osbourne, thespian Kenneth Branagh – and The Spice Girls.
When it comes to UK theater, there’s no way around London’s West End. Also known as “Theatreland”, the area between Oxford Street and The Strand, Regent Street and Kingsway, has been home to glamour and glitz since the days of Queen Victoria. Some playhouses on Drury Lane go even further back – i.e. to the late 17th century and the rakish court of Charles II when Drury Lane was an attraction for debauched aristocrats. Today, UK theater in the West End attracts tourists from around the world.
Unsurprisingly, West End productions are a fairly commercial form of UK theater, like Broadway spectacles in NYC. After all, tourism is a major part of the UK economy. West End theaters mainly put on musicals, comedy, as well as popular classics and “middle-brow” plays, often with well-known actors from movies and television.
At the time of writing, current West End plays included The Lion King musical, The Ladykillers, based on the classic British film comedy of the same name, and Private Lives, a charming drawing-room comedy by Noël Coward. The biggest hits have been running for years – or decades. Perennial favorites of UK theater are, for example, Les Misérables (since 1985), or the Agatha Christie mystery The Mousetrap (since 1952).
If you’d like to enjoy an evening in “Theatreland”, go to the famous ticket booth on Leicester Square. Located in the little clocktower building, it’s the one-stop shop for reduced tickets. If you are lucky or arrive early (the booth opens at 9:00 am, from Monday to Saturday, and at 11:00 am on Sunday), you can see a lavish musical for half the price.
Obviously, UK theater in London has more to offer than the West End. While the commercial stage productions are financed via ticket sales, there are also several publicly funded UK theater companies in the capital. For instance, the arts complex at the Barbican Centre – maintained by the City of London – houses two theaters, with a capacity of 1,200 and 200 seats. They regularly host stage and dance events, often welcoming international companies. The Barbican itself – a concrete colossus in the aptly named “Brutalist” style – has the unfortunate distinction of being considered the ugliest building in London. However, this shouldn’t distract theatergoers from the beauty inside.
In addition to such large non-commercial venues, there are dozens of small-scale stages throughout London. They frequently showcase newcomers, alternative comedians, amateur societies, non-mainstream cabaret, and the like. For the more established acts on the “fringe” of UK theater, Time Out London is, as always, a great source.
Brush Up Your Shakespeare
When talking about UK theater, you cannot fail to mention William Shakespeare. The most celebrated playwright of English literature emerged when modern UK theater was in its infancy. Four centuries after his death, Shakespeare is alive and well. For tourists and residents alike, finding an opportunity to watch a Shakespeare play is easy as pie. Drama societies in schools, universities, or local neighborhoods put on his works on a regular basis – more or less successfully, depending on their creative talent.
For a professional staging of Shakespeare in UK theater, it’s worth having a look at the program of The Globe or the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company). Shakespeare’s Globe is a reconstruction of what an Elizabethan playhouse might have looked like. It was erected on the south bank of the Thames, about 250 meters from the site of the historical Globe Theatre. Though decried as “Shakespeare Disneyland” by some critics, the Globe has proved very popular since it opened in 1997.
The Globe stages open-air productions in summer, which you can attend for as little as five pounds. However, wear comfortable shoes: The cheapest tickets are for “groundlings” standing in the courtyard. After an unabridged performance of, say, Coriolanus – Shakespeare’s second-longest play, lasting over three hours – your feet will thank you for sneakers.
In 2012, the Globe co-operated with the RSC to organize the World Shakespeare Festival as part of the Cultural Olympiad. Their Globe-to-Globe event hosted international companies presenting all 37 Shakespeare plays in different languages, e.g. an Afghan production of The Comedy of Errors or a Yoruba version of The Winter’s Tale. The RSC, in turn, staged their own (as well as global) productions in several cities other than London.
Even if you can’t be present for such a special occasion, the RSC is always worth a visit. It has been an essential part of the UK theater scene since 1961, and it’s based in Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon. The small Warwickshire town makes for a lovely destination for a daytrip from Birmingham, or a mini-break from London. If you are lucky, you might witness a legendary performance, such as the 1976 Macbeth with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, a highlight in the history of UK theater. Or you might have a chat with an actor at the theater pub (The Black Swan, aka The Dirty Duck) afterwards.