Simon McBurney: 'Germany understand that in a crisis you need bonds between people'

As Complicité’s The Encounter goes online, its creator discusses the need to rebuild British culture ‘from the ground up’

When Simon McBurney started his company Complicité in 1983, he didn’t think his brand of anarchic theatre would one day make its way on to syllabuses alongside Pinter and Shakespeare. “We’ve never seen ourselves as an institution and all of a sudden we find ourselves on the GCSE and A-level curriculum,” he says.

Now his work is also being streamed, something that was once anathema to a performer and director who has always emphasised the importance of a live setting. “In a theatre, you give yourself up to it as an audience. You can’t stop it, rewind it,” says McBurney. “If you go out to the toilet or to have a cigarette you miss something. It has its own time. That’s something you can’t get online.”

Inspired by the story of National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre’s journey into the Brazilian rainforest while searching for the Mayoruna people, McBurney’s 2015 show The Encounter is being made available online for one week this month, partly so students can experience it during the lockdown. When it played live, audience members were given headphones to listen to the show’s “mood-altering and mind-expanding” binaural audio.

Simon McBurney in The Encounter at the Barbican in 2018.
Simon McBurney in The Encounter at the Barbican in 2018. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The Covid-19 outbreak has forced a change of perspective for McBurney. When we FaceTime he’s at home in Stroud with his family. He is taking stock of the impact the pandemic has had on culture but also of the fact he’s lost four friends to the illness, including the composer Dmitri Smirnov and the actor Bruce Myers.

For McBurney the crisis offers an opportunity to reshape culture, although it’s fair to say his own pitch is still in development. “It’s possible to think in a new way, but what does this mean regarding theatre?” he asks himself. “I have absolutely no fucking idea.”

One idea he does have is for the UK to embrace a less centralised cultural landscape. Complicité started in Oxford in a community space called the Pegasus theatre and it’s that kind of institution – funded by Arts Council England and engaged with its locality – that will help the arts to emerge in stronger shape, according to McBurney.

“If the theatre is to survive it has to have very powerful regional bases,” he says. “There’s got to be money devolved from London out to cities and towns around the UK. If, in the middle of a pandemic, we can find literally trillions of pounds then we should be building up again, right from the ground upwards, when it comes to theatres.”

Is more money the way forward? It’s not as simple as that, says McBurney. “I can’t just say ‘I wish they’d give us a bit more dosh,’” he says. “It’s so divisive that if there was more money for the Arts Council, it would be spun in a way where people would say, ‘But it should be going to the NHS.’ That is not the argument.”

McBurney is genial and affable but when we get on to the subject of politics, the mood shifts. “Culture is about the health of the nation and it’s about how we connect with each other and build a new society,” he says. “But what we’ve seen over the last 10 years is that the very rich have got a great deal richer and the poor have died. It’s been a policy of division and separation.”

For McBurney theatre and society are the same thing, and the politics of austerity damaged both. In his opinion, the UK should look to Europe and specifically Germany, a country that is often cited as an example of how artists could be supported.

“After the financial crash in 2008, when the Conservatives came in they instituted a policy that we now know as austerity. One of the first things they cut was anything cultural and the Arts Council has been slowly whittled away,” he says. “By contrast Germany enormously increased its cultural funding, because they understood that in a situation of crisis you need to strengthen bonds between people.”

McBurney likes Angela Merkel because, he says, she speaks to the German population like they are grownups, not “people who are there to be manipulated”. Her “more enlightened” form of government has not only created a healthier cultural landscape than Britain’s but also made its response to the coronavirus crisis more effective. “The whole point of government is not to exploit people but to bind people together,” he says. “My own personal feeling is that we are being led by a government that is lying to us, that is exploiting us and has been engaged in a campaign of misinformation for a long time.”

McBurney sees our current state of isolation as an exaggerated version of contemporary society: fragmented and individualistic. “We’re isolated, we’re separated, we’re not in the streets mingling and interconnecting,” he says. “That’s been a process that’s been going on in our lives for some time now.” But there is a possibility for change: “Things do not have to be as they were.”


Lanre Bakare

The GuardianTramp

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