Representation of regional English cities in contemporary theatre
Tom Nicholas is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Drama. His research is funded by a College of Humanities and Arts and Humanities Research Council PhD Studentship. His research focuses on representations of regional English cities in contemporary theatre. His supervisor is Professor Cathy Turner.
Regional cities and their representation in contemporary theatre
My research focuses on regional English cities and their representation in contemporary theatre.
I have been involved in making theatre for the entirety of my adult life, with the vast majority of my practice having been carried out in Plymouth. Plymouth has not only been the location of much of my theatre-making, however, many of my early plays were also set in the city. This tendency within my own work has meant that, when watching plays and performances created by others, I have long been drawn to considering the role that geography plays in the themes being explored.
The setting of a piece of theatre (or any other cultural text) often has a clear relationship with the kind of story that is being told. Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money (1987), which follows a set of bankers and traders in the aftermath of the deregulation of financial markets in 1986, could only have taken place in the City of London. Likewise, for Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem (2009) to explore the tension between the mythologised “green and pleasant land” of rural England and contemporary experiences of rural poverty and marginalisation, it needed to be set in rural Southern England—the part of the country with which that aspect of the English spatial imaginary has historically been associated. In my research, I am interested in what kinds of stories are being told about regional, post-industrial English cities on the contemporary stage.
Post industrial revolution identities
This is a particularly crucial question to ask in 2020. For, contemporary deindustrialisation has had a considerable impact upon England’s regional cities. Many of the largest cities outside London are products of the Industrial Revolution and, throughout much of their existence, have drawn on the industries that thrived there not only as a source of employment but also as a locus of identity. The continued popularity of the image of the worker bee as a symbol for Manchester, for instance, points to how ingrained the idea of that city as being “industrial” is in the minds of those who live there. Yet, the 20th century saw a gradual (and then very sudden) decline in industrial activity in England. Such cities have thus not only needed to find new bases for economic growth but also to reconsider their identity, both inwardly and as expressed to the outside world in tourist information and pitches for investment.
My PhD research, then, explores the contribution that theatre-makers whose work engages with regional, post-industrial English cities have been making to these processes of place identity negotiation. The ascription of identity to a city is always a contentious, highly-political matter, for it is always partial and always excludes as many people and practices as it includes. Central to my research has thus been whether the place identities that the performances I have been studying have attributed to the cities they engage with support or contest the place identities ascribed to the same cities by “official” bodies such as local governments tourist boards.
When I visited Hull as part of that city’s tenure as UK City of Culture in 2017, for instance, it was evident that there was a desire on the part of the event’s organisers to portray the city as a potential “global city” with promotional literature frequently boasting about the city’s historic international links. Within several of the performances I watched during my visit, however, there seemed to be a desire to instead celebrate Hull’s distinctiveness and its ability to stand alone despite a feeling that the city has consistently been overlooked by national governments and global capitalism. My research seeks to foreground such tensions between different visions of what a city “means” and to consider how plays and other performances might be contributing to these debates.