The Drama of the Game: Sport in TheatreDate: 1 July 2002
After four World Cup weeks, Britain's sporting summer continues with Wimbledon, the Commonwealth Games, test matches & a plethora of plays celebrating football, baseball & the glory of the game. Mark Shenton assesses the score on sport in theatre.
Reviewing Richard Greenberg's play Take Me Out that has just opened at the Donmar Warehouse, Guardian critic Michael Billington said, "I welcome the play as an addition to the meagre catalogue of dramas that deal with sport". Of course, for most theatre producers sport is actually far less welcome, with events like the recent national obsession with the World Cup and the tennis at Wimbledon both being amongst the things that keep people out of the theatre.
An untapped subject
But Billington is right, at least, that dramatically speaking, sport is a fairly untapped subject. Partly, of course, it's a question of representation: how do you recreate the spontaneity of sport - the outcome of which, with the possible exception of wrestling, isn't or shouldn't be pre-determined - with the fixed conditions of the theatre, trying to achieve the same ending every night?
But as a milieu, the world of sport can be a fascinating one; and especially the obsessive passions that arise around it. Take Me Out isn't, in fact, the first show to be set in the world of baseball; the Broadway musical got there in 1955 with Damn Yankees, adapted from a novel, The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, and telling the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil for the chance to play with his favourite team, the Washington Senators.
The centrality of the game
While baseball is an American national obsession to rival ours for football, how do such works translate over here? In advance of the opening of Take Me Out here, its author Richard Greenberg commented, "The play will have to establish the centrality of the game that Americans will take for granted. I've wondered about this - but I keep reminding myself that I loved The Changing Room even though I knew, and know, nothing about rugby", he went on, referring to the 1971 British play by David Storey that is set in a rugby changing room.
Rugby also, of course, made a central appearance in John Godber's Up 'n' Under, winner of the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Comedy in 1984, and again earlier this year in the Irish comedy Alone it Stands, seen at the Duchess Theatre.
Gary Lineker to David Beckham?
Britain's true national sport - football - has proved more popular still. This year alone, it's the inspiration behind five new plays (included, with a nod to James Bond, The World Cup Is Not Enough) that will be mounted this August at the Edinburgh Fringe. On an even grander scale, it provided a principal theme, and a title, for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton's West End musical The Beautiful Game, with choreographer Meryl Tankard creating highly stylised movements that actually put a game onstage.
Watching the game - or more specifically, Britain's losing match against Germany at the 2000 World Cup - drove the plot of Roy Williams's play Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads, recently premiered as part of the National's Transformation season in the Lyttelton Loft. The Germans provided the foil for Arthur Smith and Chris England's 1992 comedy, An Evening with Gary Lineker, about England's loss to their old foes - again - in the 1990 World Cup.
And given the precedent, with one of English football's favourite players of the 1980s and 90s in its very title, it surely can't be long before there's a play named for David Beckham. Already England manager Sven Goran Eriksson has been added as an emcee to An Evening with Gary Lineker for its current revival at Riverside Studios, en route to the Edinburgh Fringe.
Boats & bats
Playwrights aren't necessarily daunted by physical settings: Alan Ayckbourn celebrated the leisurely sport of boating in Way Upstream, and for its production at the National's Lyttelton, even had the boat floating in an onstage tank. All was well until the tank sprung a leak - and threatened to drown the theatre. And John Godber (a dab hand at putting sport onto stage) even brought a ski slope onto the stage of the Garrick for his skiing comedy, On the Piste, nominated for an Olivier in 1993.
Richard Harris brought the cricket pitch into view for his 1979 Olivier-nominated comedy Outside Edge; Simon Block put a snooker table centre stage for his Royal Court play Not a Game for the Boys; Howard Sackler's boxing drama The Great White Hope received its British premiere at the Tricycle and was subsequently re-staged by the RSC; and the RSC also premiered Louise Page's drama Golden Girls, set on a women's athletics track. Recently, too, New York's Wooster Group brought their deconstruction of Racine's Phedre to the Riverside Studios, To You the Birdie, played out as an onstage badminton match.
But surely you can think of more than these! Come on theatre trivia buffs, what other shows are there with sporting connections? If you have suggestions, please email us or add them to the Whatsonstage.com Discussion Forum.