By Emma Whitney
It always surprises me whenever anyone tries to create distance between sport and the arts. It’s not as if being obsessed with 11 men or women kicking an imitation pig’s bladder around means that you obviously can’t love seeing the latest Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation of Hamlet just as much. People are more complicated and interesting than that, after all. Plus, it’s hard to think of anything more inherently dramatic than sport, especially football, right?
Seeing By Far The Greatest Team at The Lowry Theatre in Salford this weekend brought all that home to me. A fantastic exploration of rivalry, identity, and just what football means to all Mancunians (adopted or not), By Far The Greatest Team is a collection of four plays, examining the sporting division in a city that bleeds football. Just recently, football and theatre’s relationship has undergone something of a mini-renaissance, given the runaway success of Gurinder Chadha’s West End adaptation of her own cult-favourite football movie, Bend It Like Beckham – not to mention well-received, smaller productions of The Pass and Jumpers For Goalposts, created by the Royal Court and The Bush respectively.
And had things turned out differently, the name Matt Smith would mean a Fulham striker and not a former Doctor Who; the actor Smith had a promising career at youth level at both Nottingham Forest and Leicester, but was forced to follow the limelight rather than the floodlights after a back injury put paid to his footballing dreams.
The beautiful game’s portrayal in theatre has old roots: not only does Shakespeare himself refer twice to the game – in both King Lear and The Comedy of Errors – but Harold Brighouse, known to many as the writer of gritty 19th century-set drama Hobson’s Choice, wrote another play all about football. Entitled The Game (original, that), the show was revived in 2010 by Barrie Rutter’s Northern Broadsides, a century after it was first performed. A Guardian piece on the revival shows how eerily prophetic Brighouse was, with his tale about a club ‘…on the brink of financial ruin’, with a star player beset with ‘…girlfriend problems’, angry fans and a chairman who ‘…considers a controversial plan’ – i.e. selling the star player to a rival team and then encouraging him to throw a game ‘to bring in much-needed cash to balance the books.’ The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh?
Of course, football has graced the pages and the screens of Britain and the world to great acclaim over the past 50 years and more; Escape To Victory, Fever Pitch (the book, definitely) and Goal! have all resonated with film buffs, culture vultures and football fans alike, to lesser or greater extents perhaps.
There has to be a mention of Man City film classic There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble here. If you want to have an idea of what supporting the Blues was like pre-2008, watch that movie.
But theatre offers a visceral connection that books and films cannot. Like the buzz you get when you go to the Etihad, Anfield, or even Old Trafford – when the whole stadium is alive with tension, singing and shouting before the match has begun – good theatre connects with its audience, changing them and thrilling them, making them feel that for 90 minutes, this – the play – is the only thing that matters.
As Sarah McDonald Hughes – City fan and one of By Far The Greatest Team’s four writers – told The Guardian’s Hannah Ellis-Petersen: “We wanted to explore how is it that theatre doesn’t achieve what football achieves every week, in terms of the reaction to it, the spectators and the experience for them. That is really what theatre is also going for – to try and… engage people in the moment and create these emotional journeys…”
Being a football supporter carries with it a narrative of its own, a shared history packed with drama and passion. Far from being mutually exclusive, there is so much that links theatre and football, and so much that theatre can learn from the beautiful game. Though if any play can make me feel as alive I did on 13 May 2012, I’ll eat my City scarf.
Check out Mark Lawson’s excellent Guardian summary of the best British plays about football for some inspiration
Which footballing plays have I missed? Share with us your memories of the beautiful game and the stage @OffsideRulePod
Follow Emma on Twitter at @emmalucywhitney