Why Does Sport Make For Such Good Theatre?


Ahead of a bumper weekend of huge sporting events such as the Men’s FA Cup Final between local rivals Manchester City and Manchester United, and a host of recent plays about sport including Dear England at the National Theatre and the West End, our Senior PR Account Manager Elaine Jones asks, why does sport make for such good theatre?

Let’s start this blog post with a pop quiz, which play are the below lines from?

“Roma have risen from their ruins! Manolas, the Greek God in Rome! The unthinkable unfolds before our eyes! This was not meant to happen! This could not happen! THIS IS HAPPENING!”

The answer is D - none of the above. It’s actually a piece of famous football commentary from Roma vs Barcelona during the Men’s Champions League Quarter Final in 2018, though you’d be forgiven for thinking commentator Peter Drury was an actor playing an Army general describing a moment of uprising from an epic European drama written in the 6th Century. But the game was similar to an epic stage drama. Let me set the scene as if I was writing stage directions of a play to expand on my point…

A Spring evening in Rome in April, warm enough not to wear a jacket but with a slight breeze in the air
The Stadio Olympico, a stadium that holds 72,698 is nearly at capacity
The atmosphere is one of tense nervous excitement - you could cut it with a knife
Men from two football teams, Roma from Italy and Barcelona from Spain, take what will feel like one of the longest walks of their lives from their changing rooms to the pitch
Some are nervous, some excited, some terrified
The players line up on the pitch for the pre-match pleasantries
The Champions League theme - a rousing piece of classical music with stirring strings and powerful opera singing based on Handel’s Zadok the Priest - blares out of the speakers causing the crowd to cheer so loud no one can hear themselves think
Pleasantries and music done, the men remove their jackets, place them in the technical areas, have a couple more sips from their water bottles and walk to their positions on the field and wait…
The scene is set for battle
And what a battle it would be…

The drama that unfolded that evening could have come straight from the stage. Roma were 4-1 down after the first leg in Spain and appeared on their way out of the tournament. With the score at 2-0 to the home team and the tension at breaking point, Roma’s Greek defender Kostas Manolas headed in at the near post to level the score causing scenes of utter delirium. Twelve stomach churning minutes followed until the referee blew his whistle. Roma were through on away goals, Barcelona were out.

The stadium erupted. The unbelievable had happened! There were tears of joy, hugs and some just sat with their heads in their hands stunned. These emotions are experienced at sporting venues each week, and they are also experienced in theatres each week.

Lately there has been a flurry of shows about sport including Dear England at the National Theatre, Red Pitch at Soho Place and Test Match at the Orange Tree. Why is this? Why does sport make for such good theatre?

Well, why do people like sport? I think for the same reasons they like theatre. Both unite people in ways few other things can. A host of people all in the same place experiencing a host of emotions at the same time. All in it together. There can be drama, ecstasy, sadness, tension, belonging, pride, laughter, joy… I could go on. Some of the most intense and emotional moments of my life have been in a theatre or in a pub watching Wales or Wrexham…usually the latter coz, Wales. This might be a bit of a cliche but I’ve seen grown men cry at shows or matches and I’d bet money those are the only places some of them have openly done that.

Why do sport and theatre trigger such emotional reactions? I think this comes down to a few things that are all interlinked;

  • Pride - being proud of something whether that’s your team doing well or seeing your community represented on a stage.
  • Belonging - feeling you, whether as a fan cheering on your team or as an audience member reacting to something the actors are doing that lifts them, are part of something.
  • Reflections - seeing some part of yourself or something you’ve experienced on a bigger setting whether a pitch or a stage which I think link back to belonging and pride.

There are other things I’ve probably missed here as well. Sometimes, I don’t think it’s even the sport of the show people are interested in, it's the feelings they create.

Focusing on reflection for a moment, Tony and Olivier award winning playwright Yasmina Reza once said “Theatre is a mirror, a sharp reflection of society’’ and I think some of this applies to sport. Sometimes both together. A show like The Invincibles which tells the story of the Sterling Ladies, a women’s football team from Dagenham who were unbeaten for two years during World War I, is a great example of this. The First World War saw many women head into the workplace taking over roles usually occupied by men and they also took their place on the football field. But when men came back from the War, women were expected to go back to domesticity, marriage and children and their achievements on and off the pitch - crowds for games drew up to 30,000 people - were threatening to disturb the norm. So much so that a ban was put on all women’s teams which lasted until 1970. Sport reflecting society, later becoming theatre that’s reflecting sport that’s reflecting society.

The play ran alongside last year’s Women’s World Cup last year which was a huge success in terms of showing the appetite for women’s sport with the tournament generating $570 million dollars and attracting record breaking attendances and audiences watching on TV. As great as all this is and proof of how times have changed, it would be naive of me not to mention one of the main talking points from the tournament which was former Spanish Football Federation President Luis Rubiales forcibly kissing Spanish forward Jenni Hermoso during the medal ceremony. A timely reminder that the battle against sexism - on and off the pitch - still has some way to go.

This month alone - particularly this weekend - there’s a host of sporting events where the potential drama wouldn’t be out of place on a stage near you. One of Tennis’s greats Rafa Nadal will take what may be his final bow at the French Open, some of the world’s best cricketers will face off in the Indian Premier League Cricket final and on Saturday, huge rivals will go head to head in two epic tussles; Manchester City will take on Manchester United in the Men’s FA Cup Final and French side Toulouse will go for revenge for last year’s semi-final defeat by Ireland’s Leinster in the Men’s Rugby European Champions Cup. Meanwhile in Scotland, perhaps the fiercest of all local rivals Celtic and Rangers square off in the Scottish Cup final. There’s also the Women’s Champions League final between Barcelona and Lyon and the richest game of football where the winner of Leeds vs Southampton will be promoted to the Premier League. Later this year will see the T20 Cricket World Cup, Euro 2024, the Olympics and the Paralympics. There will be tears, celebrations, frustration, new rivalries made and old scores settled.

And the sporting drama will also continue on stage. The Giant Killers will play London and tour the UK with the true story of the first working class football team to win the FA Cup, The Bounds at the Royal Court looks at national divides via a football match in 1553 and Pitch at Pleasance explores the relationship between football and the queer community. How long before we see a show about the Lionesses in the vein of Dear England? A two hander about Roger Feder and Rafa Nadal’s friendship and rivalry? A musical about Welsh rugby? There are endless possibilities.

So even though they may seem like sport and theatre play for different teams, they really are a winning combination.

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