Following last June’s Brexit vote, political theatre has taken a trajectory towards telling the stories of ‘real people’. In the National Theatre’s My Country, this was actors saying the verbatim words of people around the country. In Mohammed el Khatib’s Stadium, this is real people standing and talking to us.
The title gives you the illusion that this is a play about football. Whilst football is undoubtedly the catalyst of the conversation, it does not dominate it. Instead we meet a group of people who follow two different competing groups. This isn’t the Montagues vs Capulets, or even Mary Berry vs Channel 4 we are told by our host, Dimitri Hatton. It works like a slightly strange, jovial version of Jeremy Kyle.
But instead of familiar disputes, we hear beautifully tender stories. A married couple tell us about their time at Wembley Stadium when an elderly gentlemen’s dentures fell six rows down the ground during a celebration. A blind West Brom supporter, accompanied by his service dog, tells us of the last goal he saw scored by his beloved team as the lights fade to darkness. We hear his story as he tells us. One man stands in silence, a piece of classical music plays that his mother loved, as projections tell us about how she was not a football fan, but inspired by his passion, sewed him a flag. It took her years to make it. He takes it to every single game that he attends, and stands and waves it. He doesn’t feel the atmosphere, but instead that his mother is there with him.
There is a remarkable intimacy. We are sat on two opposing football stands, but Stadium feels like a strange kind of listening party rather than two rival football teams. The audience engage; there is a scripted interruption who disagrees with what someone says in a video. What wasn’t bargained upon was the fact that the someone was in the front row of the audience. He put aside the two’s disagreements over which club was more working class, and shook hands for the benefit of the West Midlands.
This kind of work is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it got over 50 non-performers onto a professional theatres stage. Secondly, it will probably attract a demographic of people who have not attended theatre before. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it has shown that an honest and personable dialogue is achievable. It is this lack of a theatricality that succeeds; Stadium didn’t mean to be anything that it wasn’t. We saw into these communities, and they saw more into their own and into their ‘opposing’ community.
If one thing perhaps comes through predominantly from Stadium, it’s that there is less between the bitter rivalries of football, and society itself, than we thought. And that is a message which can only be shouted louder and louder from the theatres and the communities around the UK.