Among the host of varied theatres and performances spaces spread across Manchester is the Royal Exchange Theatre, which boasts one of the most eclectic and ambitious programmes in the country.

Set up in 1976 by a group seeking to emulate the democratic performance spaces found in Ancient Greece, the Exchange prides itself on a sense of intimacy and open dialogue with its audiences, created in part by the in-the-round staging of its main space. The Royal Exchange puts on both bold adaptations of classic plays and entirely new productions throughout the year.

B!RTH

The Royal Exchange has a keen interest and involvement in current global issues, and autumn 2016 saw the theatre host B!RTH, an international theatre festival centred around the topic of inequality in healthcare around the world.

Seven prominent female playwrights from different countries (India, UK, Syria, USA, Brazil, Kenya and China) were commissioned to write a piece based on issues relating to birth and maternity provision in their homeland, all of which were shown at the Royal Exchange.

In the video at the top of the page, watch an introductory trailer, while below, a highlights video gives an insight into the intentions behind the writers’ work, alongside footage of the live performances.

International voices

The playwrights selected for B!RTH approached the issue from varied and unique perspectives.

The UK’s Stacey Gregg examined issues around the country’s wealth gap, abortion rights and increasing ages of mothers; Liwaa Yazji from Syria highlighted the ongoing war in her country and its impact on healthcare and motherhood; and Swati Simha focused on India’s high rate of infant mortality and the question of birth control.

In the video below, find out more about the playwrights and their views on the subject. In the third video above, you can also get a glimpse of the rehearsal process and hear excerpts from the plays read by cast members in the rehearsal room.

Topical conversations

The festival went beyond staging plays, and organisers put on a series of conversations between academics, medical professionals and cultural figures to generate debate and provide context.

In the last video listed above, a panel including human rights activist Shami Chakrabarti discuss questions around the control of population and debate whether birth is a necessary tactic or a patriarchal tool of oppression.

The importance and power of B!RTH stretches far beyond the festival itself, and the issues it raised remain pertinent across the world. All of those involved in the festival took part in a vital debate, and initiated a conversation that will likely continue for many years to come. By championing this challenging dialogue, the Royal Exchange once again proves its important role as a true pioneer of progressive theatre and as a platform for global debate in the UK.

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