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Encore Theatre Magazine
::Encore Polemics::

Ben Elton [>]
Rock Musicals [>]
On the Gift [>]
Slow Theatre [>]
Trevor Nunn [>]
Royal Court [>]
National Theatre [>]
Applause [>]
Lord of the Rings: the musical [>]

Light Entertainment

Ben EltonBen Elton does not, I'm sure, read Encore. But he's obviously been rattled by someone's criticisms of his awful awful shows and has used BBC Breakfast TV to launch a charm offensive. And, God knows, no one's charm is more offensive than Ben Elton's. You can watch it here. His 'defence' of these shows is that this is 'popular entertainment' and he has a word of caution for his critics:
"You should be a bit careful about judging popular entertainment by what the critics say. I think it's time we acknowledged that Dad's Army, Fawlty Towers were slagged off when they opened. It takes critics a generation to recognise what the public understand instinctively. Popular entertainment is hard to do and it's important to have. And it's irritating, I have to say, constantly when one is told that there are these eight blokes who live in a little hole and work for the Sunday Times and they didn't like it! Well, hold on there are two thousand people standing up cheering it each night. That doesn't necessarily make it good but it certainly doesn't make it bad. And I think in terms of popular entertainment you'll very rarely find it being welcomed by professional critics. If you want to look at what the critics will be looking back on later, look at what the public like now."
Let's give him some credit here. Of course, there can be a mismatch between the critics and popular entertainment. Let's not dispute that there is a great history of popular entertainment that has often been misunderstood by lofty-minded critics. And, I guess, we should take into account that he's speaking off the cuff, thinking on his feet (though he's hardly being grilled by Jeremy Paxman now is he?).

But his defence doesn't stack up. Some quick points:
  • Just because some classic pieces of popular entertainment were slagged off initially but have now come to be seen to be classics, this does not mean that everything slagged off will come to be seen as a classic. If it were true, we'd look back at Time as the British Theatre's finest moment, Triangle would top everyone's classic television lists, and Huey Lewis & The News and Mike & The Mechanics would regularly vie for the top slot in '100 All Time Greatest Album' lists.
  • Point of information: Fawlty Towers and Dad's Army did get some adverse reviews, but generally there was a warm reception to both. As for the audience's infallible taste, audiences for Fawlty Towers's first season in 1975 were very poor. It was only when it was repeated early in the following year that they started to perk up.
  • Encore is as happy to take pot shots at critics as anyone, but Ben Elton's assumption that critics are entirely different from 'the public', that the critics are wrong and the public are right, bears no scrutiny. Why did Fawlty Towers's audience build when the show was repeated? Word of mouth. Isn't that a kind of criticism?
  • He says that the pattern of standing ovations that his tawdry little shows receive 'doesn't necessarily make it good but it certainly doesn't make it bad'. First of all, has anyone said that standing ovations make a show bad? No. Have they suggested that it indicates that a show must be bad? Probably not. If they have, it's just snobbery, a belief that popular success must be of a lowest-common-denominator kind. But there are many things that are very popular but are still bad. Cigarettes, racism and lying are bad things but they are very widespread. The fact that lots of people give the show a standing ovation might mean that the show is achieving its objective - getting an immediately positive response from its audience, but that doesn't make it good. Often we realise days, weeks, months after seeing something that we enjoyed at the time that its charms were shallow, meretricious, superficial. There are many precedents for things that were massively popular in the past that are now massively unpopular. Whether something is good - even in popular entertainment - is relatively independent of whether it is successful.
  • Popular entertainment has its own rules. It isn't just anything that lots of people like. There's good popular entertainment and there's bad popular entertainment. Ben Elton's right if he's saying that you can't apply to it the criteria you'd use to judge a performance by Pina Bausch or a play by Martin Crimp. But he seems to think that the only criteria is box office and bums on seats. That's to give over the spirit of popular entertainment - that vital connection between performer and audience, that offering up of knowing, rich, complicated pleasures, that playfulness with official attitudes and hard-won affirmation - to the market. Is that what he believes?
Ben Elton has found a way of pulling in the punters and making money. He's now trying to dress this up as (a) the saviour of the West End, and (b) the latest in a grand tradition of popular entertainers. His shows are pulling people into to see shows that have nothing to do with the theatre; does he really believe he's getting the theatre a new long-term audience? And let's make this very clear. His shows are empty; the jokes are bad; the stories are insultingly stupid; the songs are inserted with a crude contrivance that looks only like contempt; the 'spirit' of the original performer is utterly traduced in acts of vacuous karaoke; the prices are disgraceful; these shows are boring and banal and they are a waste of anyone's money.

:: Theatre Worker Wednesday, April 07, 2004 [+] ::

Very Rocky

A shadow of Elvis Presley. Mario Kombou plays the Elvis role in Jailhouse Rock (Piccadilly Theatre, 2004) photo: Jonathan AlverOn the eve of Jailhouse Rock's opening in the West End (left), it's worth raising a glass to the Elvis Presley Enterprises who have banned the production from using the title song. Of course, as David Stubbs pointed out in The Guardian they're just protecting their own commercial interests since they will no doubt themselves be looking at ways of extending the Elvis Presley franchise into crappy stage shows. But for a moment they have contributed to the likely early closure of this show. Who's going to see Jailhouse Rock without Jailhouse Rock in it?

Some are, apparently, and the show's been tearing up the regions if their own website can be trusted, which it probably can't. They even quote some hapless theatregoer offering this deathless recommendation [all stylistic idiosyncracies preserved]: "Jailhouse Rock is a Great Show and will go into the History books, it will be remembered for years to come, just like 'Buddy' the musical".

But what was exciting about Elvis Presley (right)and Buddy Holly was nothing to do with these safety-first blasts of family entertainment. They were sexy and musicals are rarely sexy. (Even the supposedly raunchy Chicago is only sexy in the way that Hot Gossip were supposed to be sexy, that kind of ersatz sexiness, dreamed up in the brain of light entertainment producers who thinks they're offering 'something for the dads'.) The original and best. Elvis in a publicity still for the film Jailhouse Rock (1957, dir. Richard Thorpe)Elvis and Buddy Holly were aggressive, and musicals, even - no, especially - supposedly angry and serious ones like (yawn) Rent, are rarely aggressive. But more than this, Elvis was complex. Remember when he played on the Ed Sullivan show, encoring 'Hound Dog' slowed to half time, vamping for the audience, riding his microphone and using every huck and break in his voice to send the crowd into hysterics. The critics hated him, but not just because he was aggressively sexual: look at the critics, uncode their pious little notes of disdain. What riled them more than anything else was that Elvis behaved like a black man and a woman: he danced and he sang and he shook his hips and he liked being looked at. And this is where the musical finally has something in common with early rock 'n' roll; the musical has always been sexually ambivalent, racially promiscuous, and contained lurking hints of satire, hatred and opposition. Of course, these producers were schooled in the megamusical which has finally ironed out any hint of this to produce pure airbrushed spectacle, and Jailhouse Rock will have no more contact with the real excitement of rock 'n' roll than it will with the real excitement of the musical.

Pop music offers a different set of thrills from rock. Pop is all cheap perfection, tarty romanticism, small intensities of emotion passed off as melody. And there's nothing to kill the fun of all that like the lumbering mechanism of a theatrical catalogue show like Mamma Mia and the rest of that unpurple gang. We should be thankful, therefore, that George Michael is hesitating before giving permission for a musical based on the songs of Wham! As he puts it "The truth is that done on stage, there'll be no charm and you'll be left with a lot of cheese".

And of course he's right. When Madness were at their height, bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven, as near-miraculous single followed near-miraculous single; no one under forty will remember this but Rod Stewart was once an incredible singer, a magnificent interpret of songs, possessed of a voice that seemed to mix folk, blues, rock and country without playing false to any of them. Abba need no defence from us, and Queen, well for a few years, even Queen's weird seam of vaudevillian metal was tied thrillingly together by one of rock's great frontmen. But you won't glimpse any of these fleeting joys in their respective musicals. The contemporary rock catalogue musical doesn't understand rock and doesn't understand the musical.

Let's raise a glass to the hideous, faceless, grasping Elvis Presley Enterprises and may Jailhouse Rock lose everyone involved in it a cautionary amount of cash.

:: Theatre Worker Sunday, April 04, 2004 [+] ::

On the Gift: A Message to Hannan, Stock, Motton, Godfrey, et al.

The destruction of Michael Landy's possessions that formed part of Breakdown (London, 2001)In February 2001, British artist Michael Landy created Breakdown, an installation/event in which he destroyed everything he owned: clothes, family photographs, books and records, white goods, a meat-grinder inherited from his mother, his car. In the disused former premises of C&A on Oxford Street, London, his possessions were catalogued, bagged up, and pulverised by a team of demolition 'operatives' (left). The event profoundly tested our confusions between experience and consumerism, between who we are and what we buy; it also tore at our sense of belonging - is it sentimental to keep family photographs, even if you never look at them? A particular ethical puzzle was raised by the fact that among his possessions were some original artworks by his contemporary - Chris Ofili, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Gary Hume and others. When his plan was announced, some of those artists protested.

It might have seemed that Landy was testing the limits of BritArt's conceptualism; what, were the creators of the unmade bed and a fly-blown bull's head, the makers of aggressively ephemeral work, getting precious about their work's permanence? Maybe, but they may have a point.

In Marcel Mauss's The Gift, an anthropological study of gift-giving in various cultures, he claims that all gifts involves reciprocation, the promise of a counter-gift. He shows how various gift rituals involve circuits of exchange where the value and significance of the gifts is carefully balanced between the parties. This allows him to make, at one point, a striking comment on art: that artworks can never be the possession of a single person. And why? Because an artwork might be created by a single person, but it ultimately is the property of us all. This is why, it is so shocking when, in Howard Barker's 13 Objects, a multimillionaire who has bought a Holbein at auction decides to destroy it to keep it from the attention of the vulgar mass. It's the mechanism that unfailingly produced a gasp in the penultimate scene of Yasmina Reza's Art. It's why collectors who hire thieves to steal them paintings that they can never be able to display fill us with bewilderment when designating a currently inaccessible barrier reef a World Heritage Site seems quite fitting.

.Blue Night in the Heart of the West, image of a page of playtext (published by Nick Hern Books in 1995It's because no one can own an artwork. At best, you can buy privileged access to it, but the limit of your relationship to that object is that you are its custodian. If a mother buys a can of beans, she is entitled legally and by common moral agreement to do what she likes with it, eat it, burn it, bin it unused. She does not have the same entitlement with her own child, because the possessive - 'her' - designates not full right of ownership as it does with the beans but custodianship. She has privileged right to make choices about that child, but ultimately she is looking after something that can never be owned by another person. An artwork is more like a person than a thing.

Okay so where's this going?

There are several extraordinarily gifted writers for theatre who are not writing. Where are the new works from James Stock, that imaginative beacon who stopped the breath in all our throats with Star Gazy Pie and Blue Night in the Heart of the West (right)? Where's Chris Hannan's follow up to Shining Souls (it's been almost ten years)? Paul Godfrey seems to have retired from writing for the stage since the reception of Blue Ball and the craven refusal of British theatres to stage Catalogue of Misunderstanding. Gregory Motton seems to be happy to give British theatre the impression of him as Strindberg's second-most-famous translator. There are others. There are many others.

I guess the stern conclusion from looking at Landy and Mauss is that for a great writer not to write is like burning a great work of art. Bizarrely - is this really so bizarre? - you don't have the right; your talent is not your own; you are only its custodian.

Is there a flaw to this logic? Oh undoubtedly - Encore's not a philosophy magazine - but let us know where we've gone wrong. But dare we hope it might put these retiring writers on the back foot, prompt them to reconsider their silence, even, even, encourage them to produce a new play? British theatre writing is cruelly enfeebled without your writing. So write.

:: Theatre Worker Tuesday, March 30, 2004 [+] ::

Slow Theatre

Katie Mitchell's production of Three Sisters at the National Theatre runs to about three and a half hours. And it is bliss from beginning to end. Over the past fifteen years, theatres have been bullied with stuff about an MTV generation with a short attention span. Perhaps in craven obedience to this, plays have been getting shorter, with most productions at the Theatre Upstairs, say, coming it at around 75 minutes. But hasn't anyone noticed that over the same period, Hollywood movies have been getting longer? JFK, Gangs of New York, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Gladiator, Titanic... these are not exceptions to the mainstream, they are the mainstream.

Three Sisters, directed by Katie Mitchell, with Eve Best and Dominic Rowan (National: Lyttleton, August 2003)What they're really talking about is pace. For all of its three hours, Titanic steamed as relentlessly forward as the ship itself. Care, character, sensuousness, the texture of the way we are with each other, all of this is streamlined in the rush. The theatre does not need to do this; it has far less immediate means of creating sensational spectacle. We should stop worrying about snip-snap dialogue, splintered little scenes.

In one of his loveliest and most theatrical books, The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes writes that 'boredom is bliss seen from the shores of pleasure'. He's making a distinction between pleasure, where you get what you expect, and bliss, where you get an infinitely more enriching, sensuous joy from having one's expectations torn up. From a position of seeking pleasure, bliss can seem dull. And it's true that a production with the kind of pace that they get into Three Sisters takes a moment where you have to - almost consciously - adjust, relax, retune yourself. Because in that state there is so much to see, everything seems to quick and alive, there are such riches of detail and nuance. That nonchalant whistle, the thing she does with her hair, the way she puts the blankets back in the drawer, the way he looks at his fellow soldier. The abundance, the density, the care. Katie Mitchell's Three Sisters is an evening of theatre you could live your life in.

People like José Bové, the French farmer famous for leading a group of protestors in dismantling a McDonalds, campaign for slow food in opposition to fast food. Slow food takes the time it needs to be its best. Slow food in its care and uniqueness captures something of how we should be with each other.

The campaign for slow theatre starts here.

:: Theatre Worker Thursday, August 14, 2003 [+] ::

Bye Bye Sir Trevor Nunn

Trevor Nunn, retiring Artistic Director of the National TheatreTrevor Nunn's time at the helm of the National Theatre has been controversial. He has been accused of a safe repertoire, excessive reliance on musicals, of failing to provide this flagship theatre with a vision. His directorial choices have sometimes been tame, his handling of the material flabby, his tone complacent.

And all of this is true. It has taken only a matter of weeks with Nick Hytner in the chair to realise what a shabby regime has just been replaced. At his valedictory platform at the National, Sir Trevor pointed out that under his stewardship, the National produced six musicals and sixty new plays. He suggested, justificably, that to read the press one would think those figures were the other way around. But let's examine that claim.

The first thing to note is that these are not the only numbers to quote; let's weigh the aggregated budgets of those new plays against the aggregated budgets of the musicals. I'm sure the difference would not be so stark. We might also remember that something like twenty of those new plays were premiered in his final year, during the bold Loft experiment. This season seemed to have thrown together in some haste, admirable though much of it was. It also played to very small audiences, for very brief runs, so take your pick: do we weigh budgets? numbers of performances? auditorium sizes?

And finally, although there were some excellent new plays produced with Sir Trevor's presumed support (Blue/Orange, Copenhagen, Mother Clap's Molly House), there were many disasters: and that's alright, the right to fail does not need to be argued for any longer. But works like Mutabilitie, or Battle Royal, or Remember This, or The Villain's Opera look like the work of a theatre that has lost any sense of what it wants to do. They were ill-matched to their theatres, underdeveloped, did not appear to have emerged from any sharpening dialogue with the theatre. The Lyttleton has developed an admirable reputation as a new-play-killer, a demerit to add to its many architectural liabilities. But at Sir Trevor's National Theatre there seemed to be no real policy for new writing. Jack Bradley is a good man but he has evidently struggled with a artistic directorship with no instinctive sympathy for the new play.

Patricia Hodge in Summerfolk by Maxim Gorky at the National Theatre, August 1999Sir Trevor's directorial abilities are undoubted. Indeed, his production of Gorky's Summerfolk (see picture) will surely stand as one of the towering moments of the National Theatre's artistic history. But all those years in musical theatre appear to have given him a hallucinatory ability to detect 'numbers' where there aren't any. His production of The Relapse was marred by a sword fight that could have come from MGM's The Pirate; it blunted the bitterness and cleansing horror of the play's engagement with our sexual obligations. And in the second part of Stoppard's trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, the failed revolutions of 1848 were performed like a grotesque tribute to Les Misérables, as if the historical imagination of the play's director had been fly-blown by the flashily vacuous tableaux of the musical stage.

And as for those musicals themselves: there is no doubt that Oklahoma! is one of the three or four most important works in the history of the musical. It is entirely right that the National Theatre should revive it, excavate it, test its strength, and explore its contours. South Pacific, too, benefitted from its careful, toughened reworking. But My Fair Lady? Anything Goes? Singing in the Rain? These are entertaining enough, but on a West End stage they would have opened like a flower in spring; there was nothing for the National Theatre to do here, and they did nothing. Efficient shows, half-heartedly cast and sung, with, here and there, shameful pieces of miscasting.

Nick Hytner has chosen to bring in and develop Jerry Springer - The Opera. It is plainly a signature piece of programming, a slate-wiping production. The show is unbelievably vulgar; the lyrics are crude and awkward; the music is often repetitive and uncertain in register; the production is wooden; the second act is overblown; and yet the whole thing is wonderful. You sit in that drafty old theatre feeling that something remarkable, unprecedented is happening. It genuinely mixes high art with the popular; it has a vigour and dirt about it that suggests its creators are really exploring something new. It is caustic and hilarious. It is a show the like of which we have never seen in the National before. One thing is obvious: the show would have got nowhere when Sir Trevor was running the place.

At that goodbye platform, Sir Trevor was facing an entirely uncritical audience. At the end he received a standing ovation. Fair enough, anything else would have seemed an insult. But the only other time the audience applauded him was when he announced that he had kept the National Theatre in the black. There was a mild outbreak of clapping.

Is that it? Is that really Trevor Nunn's legacy to the National theatre? That he never got in debt? No one wants to applaud an artistic director who ruins a theatre's finances, but doesn't this tell us something about the safety-first priorities of this man? His was a wasted time, a conservative and complacent era in the National's history. Encore wishes him luck wherever he goes but we're glad he's no longer running what has the potential to be one of our most exciting theatres.
:: Theatre Worker 2:59 PM [^] ::

No Vision at the Court

Royal Court Theatre Exterior June 2000Isn't it strange that the one theatre in London which labels itself a 'writer's theatre' is the theatre in London in which playwrights feel most uncomfortable? One leading writer refers to it as 'the bear pit'. Playwrights are thrown to the Royal Court's great maw and then treated rather as flies to wanton boys. Talk to any British playwright and if they've been around more than a couple of years they will have a story of shabby treatment at its hands: scripts are sat on, responses are bizarre and obscure, writers fall haphazardly from favour and are dropped.

I think there's a reason for this. Writers know that there is no vision at the heart of the theatre. Vision means a strong sense from the leadership of what type of writing they love and want to promote. Vision means a sense of the world, real and imagined, knowing what writing does, understanding its mysterious value. Vision can be artistic, it can be political; under previous reigns it has been both. But looking at the work over the last few years can you honestly say there is a sense of theatre in love with the work it produces? Look at the Court's recent programme: does anything connect those plays? Is there any kind of sensibility shaping that programme? Even the Bush - God bless their naturalistic sentimental socks - pursues a vision. Mike Bradwell may not produce work I love but I know he loves it. I know what type of work he wants to make.

The Court, however, behaves as though it is unquestionably the very apex of any writer's ambition to be performed there. Of course, for forty years, after the English Stage Company took over the building in the mid fifties, it was. However you rate Look Back in Anger and those other first-wave Royal Court plays, you can't deny the uncompromising artistic vision that placed them on that stage. The list of playwrights that this single theatre has discovered, nurtured, championed - often in the face of popular and critical resistance - is probably unique in theatre history. There are probably hundreds of playwrights who owe the vitality of their writing lives to the Royal Court. Even when toying with performance art, physical theatre, improvisation and agitprop, it has remained the writer's theatre.

But this greatest of all legacies is being squandered. The current artistic team seem adrift, careering between short-lived fads, cannoning off critical notices, and profoundly, profoundly neglectful of the writing community in whose interests they once worked. They think they can pick and choose from the buffet as the fancy takes them. What happened to that skyrocket of the imagination, Phyllis Nagy? Why did Joe Penhall have to take Love and Understanding to the Bush? Where is Rebecca Prichard? Why is Mark Ravenhill working at the National? Why did the Court turn down Iron only to bring it in from the Traverse a year later? And what about Stephen Jeffreys, one of our most ambitious and thoughtful writers, a writer that an earlier incarnation of the Court would have fought to protect and produce: will they do his next play?

Ian Rickson, current artistic director of the Royal CourtMeanwhile, what are they programming? Richard Bean's Under the Whaleback is a promising idea that falls apart in the last act, lapsing into Royal Court playwriting-by-numbers. And could anyone in the current artistic team honestly swear that Che Walker, Mick Mahoney, or DeObia Oparei are more exciting than any of those playwrights they've turned their back on? There have been fine things at the Court - The Country, Far Away, the Kane season, Herons, the 'War Correspondence' events, and there are others - but they seem to have been more by accident than design. While it does not take a genius to programme Stephen Daldry's production of a new Caryl Churchill play, starring Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig, it does take an unusual kind of mind to litter your theatre with Sliding with Suzanne, Redundant and Mouth to Mouth in the space of seven months.

The result? More and more writers and turning their backs on the Court and working in other houses. The National already looks like a place that writers want to be. In Hytner they sense a director who wants big plays for big stages, a director, in short, with a vision. Companies like Paines Plough are taking the cream of the crop under their wing, showing loyalty to the writers they love.

It's a theatre in crisis. Mysteriously, the artistic team are the last to realise it. If the artistic directorate doesn't change - either mentally or physically - in a few years its place will have been taken by the National, the Donmar, Hampstead, the Almeida. As the Royal Court was but no longer seems to be, these are becoming the places where plays are actively sought, where worlds are to be imagined, where visions are conjured and pursued.

:: Theatre Worker 10:48 AM [^] ::

Ten reasons to love the new National Theatre

  1. Nick Hytner, new Artistic Director of the National TheatreThe £10 Olivier season. Mamet's Edmond? With Kenneth Branagh? Horvath? Directed by Richard Jones? Are we dreaming?
  2. Katie Mitchell directing Three Sisters. A chance for one of our great directors to set Chekhov back on his feet and scrub out the memory of the inaudible, overpriced, humourless, box-square and clichéd production still dragging them in at the Playhouse.
  3. Improvisation. Things seem freer at the National. Think about those experimental music events at Late Lounge. The daytime playreadings. Collateral Damage was a bit worthy compared to the Court’s ‘War Correspondence’ events, but wasn’t it good to see audiences sprawled over the floor in the Lyttleton Circle bar?
  4. War. Because ‘Collateral Damage’ wasn’t the end of the building’s commitment to commentary. On 10 June, Harold Pinter’s in the Olivier, reading from his work unmasking the US and NATO’s brutal co-option of humanitarianism. Henry V, too, is shrewdly judged, with some truly exciting casting decisions. Compare that with Nunn’s elegiac, complacent and self-regarding Love's Labours Lost.
  5. Attitude to New plays. Hytner’s going round telling everyone who’ll listen that he’s interested in big plays for big stages. That’ll please the Monsterists. It should please anyone interested in new writing with ambition and expansiveness. It should please the playwrights, as long as, in their years of confinement, they haven’t forgotten how to write for more than seven actors. (You think I'm joking?)
  6. New Plays. Before the summer, it all looks very promising, especially (at last) a major new play by Nick Dear. After the summer, there are new works from Frayn and Leigh (hurrah)... and also from McDonagh and Hare (well, no one’s perfect).
  7. Broadening the repertoire. Jerry Springer – The Opera was an inspired choice to open Hytner’s artistic directorship. Tales from the Vienna Woods, Mourning Becomes Electra, and The Mandate promise to be bold rediscoveries. Presenting the Philip Pullman trilogy in a big two-part production is a gorgeous idea.
  8. Republicanism. Okay, they denied it, but the publicity tells a different story. It looks like the National Theatre’s not as Royal as it once was.
  9. New blood. A new wave of theatre makers are making themselves at home there. Improbable Theatre, at last, at the National. And Richard Jones: no one who saw Too Clever by Half, A Flea in Her Ear, or The Theatrical Illusion at the Old Vic over ten years ago could doubt that he a theatrical magician without parallel in this country.
  10. Nick Hytner. Okay, the big new plays are not that big yet. Okay, there’s a noticeable lack of women in the first season. Okay, it’s a pity to dump touring. But Hytner seriously seems to be testing what it means to run a Royal National Theatre, and he's doing so with openness, courage, and imagination. The National Theatre, possibly for the first time in a generation, looks like the most exciting theatre in London to work in and visit.

:: Theatre Worker 6:23 PM [^] ::

The lost art of applause

applauding handsOn Saturday, something very unusual happened on a London stage. When Joan Plowright made her first stately entrance onto the Wyndham’s stage – a rare enough event, by any account – it was met by a round of applause. I can’t remember the last time I heard one but this was (a) a matinee audience, (b) a rarely-seen star of the theatre, and (c) the show, Absolutely (Perhaps), is one of those plays that builds up to the entrance of its star, raising the audience to a froth of anticipation so by the time they appear clapping is the only acceptable form of physical release available to you. Stars from elsewhere sometimes get these responses – Madonna and Martine McCutcheon got them in their fleeting recent appearances. And this tells us something: that it’s really only in the theatre that we’ve stopped doing this. Bands get applauded and whooped when they come on stage (indeed almost invariably the moment is delayed to milk the maximum release). Stand up comedy, panto, game shows, almost every entrance and exit gets its round of applause.

Before the Second World War, they used to clap sets, good lines, entrances and exits. Until just after the First World War, the actors used to do a curtain call after every act. In the modern theatre, we’ve been trained to hold our clapping to the end. (And when did three curtain calls become standard? I’m sure actors used to think themselves lucky to earn two bows? Now the lights come flying up again even if half the audience are edging down the rows.) There’s a story about Tallulah Bankhead in a murder mystery whose first appearance involved her stepping through the French windows to discover the body. She did so, gasping in horror at the corpse, at which point her applause began. It’s said that she graciously stepped over the body, came down to the footlights, and acknowledged the applause, before returning to gasp once again at the dead body. And it seems that no one at the time thought anything odd about that. Now strategems and techniques exist to clamp down on such disruptive applause.

Laurence Olivier and Joan PlowrightWhen Laurence Olivier was performing in The Party (1973), Trevor Griffiths’s play about the possibility of a British revolution, he would start his first speech from offstage to blur the moment of his appearance and forestall the clapping. Which is perhaps why his wife’s round was rather desultory on Saturday. It began with a strident and impenitent clap from the second row (“clap, damn you! Do you know who this is?”) which spread a few seats across and a couple of rows back before being cut off by the play remorselessly moving on.

Joan Plowright’s performance is nothing special. She’s frail and unfocused – though she uses this rather expertly. The production’s disastrously overblown and the translation has turned this bit of modest, early Pirandello into a pompous load of cobblers. Clapping this was deferential, fawning, perversely unresponsive. But applause can be more than that; in forbidding applause, we are stripped of our ability to intervene audibly in the theatre and also to acknowledge the art of acting. Encore loves new plays, don’t get us wrong, but our theatre culture can sometimes turn all theatre into reverential experiences where the joys of acting become a kind of shared secret. Is politics in the theatre always content? Or is there something politically potent in the acknowledgement of an actor's work? Is the entrance round and the clap-trap always to be disparaged?

:: Theatre Worker 5:14 PM [^] ::

Theatrecrimes #1:
These Are A Few Of My Favourite Rings
It's one of the curious things about art that you don't know whether it's good until you've seen it. Lots of theatre shows sound wonderful, but go badly wrong. All writers have had ideas for plays, all actors found dream parts, all directors found 'the show I was born to direct', and then somehow in the execution something misfires, a connection is not made, on a crucial day the atmosphere wasn't right, and the thing is lost. This can happen the other way around, of course. It would be very hard to describe Michael Frayn's Copenhagen in a way that set the pulse racing. Three actors on a bare stage talk about nuclear physics for a couple of hours. And that is all they do. But in doing so, they create an profoundly ambitious dramatic experience that places us on the very edge of the present by showing us the very contingency of present lives. So we should always be careful before dismissing something out of hand, sight unseen.

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - teaser posterThis caution is necessary before responding to the grim news that a musical adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is being mounted, with a budget of £8 million, due to open in Spring 2005 (you can visit the official web page here but only if you have Flash 6 player - yup, it's that sort of site). So yes, it is possible that somehow the company will mine the purest Elven silver from this material. It could indeed be that they have something in this book that urgently demands transformation into show tunes. No doubt £8 million will prompt some wonderful leaps in theatrical technology.

But doesn't every fibre strain to say that the idea is not worth pursuing? that if it comes off, even if it's a hit, it will be pointless? Tolkien's book is okay, sometimes inventive, ambitious in conception, often plodding and pedantic. The new movies are painstakingly well-crafted, gorgeously entertaining, slightly old-fashioned epics. But a musical? What can the musical offer Tolkien and what can Tolkien offer the musical? The Lord of the Rings does have songs in it, some of them beautifully set to music by Stephen Oliver for the BBC's 1981 radio adaptation. And we all know that the world of the hobbits inspired a lot of ill-advised prog. rock and folk revivalism (such as these curious fellows). The website has a hilariously overblown online trailer backed with some kind of cod-celtic hurdy-gurdy effect. But this is more Lord of the Dance than Lord of the Rings and there's a difference between elegant medievalist pastiche and the demands of musical song and there seems to be a fundamental mismatch between the emotional complexities of great musicals and the mock-legendary dilemmas of Tolkien's heroes. How is either served by their coming together?

And then there is the question of scale. The film trilogy will be around nine hours when complete (around twelve on the extended DVD versions). Even then, Tolkien fans are massing on the internet to bemoan the erasure of Tom Bombadil and various other nuances of the original books. What will it be like reduced to a theatre's three hours? At an hour per book?

Of course, it might come off. The writing team have some accomplishments behind them, the performers will no doubt be hard-working and talented, and the show's putative director, Matthew Warchus, is a firm creative hand (though Encore would like respectfully to suggest he starts pulling against the tide, before the dangerous currents of Our House, Tell Me on a Sunday, and Lord! - or whatever it's going to be called - drown him in the deep waters of mediocre tat). Lord of the Rings - The Musical It could work; we are genuinely willing to be proved wrong, and maybe in two summers' time we'll be whistling 'The Riders of Rohan Cha-Cha' along with everyone else.

The Lion King - poster for the stage musicalBut it's hard not to feel that there's the dreariest sort of cynicism behind this work. There's a clue in a statement by Kevin Wallace, one of the show's producers, that the budget will allow for "'generous' but not international star-level salaries". That sounds like they're throwing all the money at the visual effects and marketing - I'd be astonished if the publicity budget is less than £2 million, and unsurprised if it were to reach £4 million - and keeping their running costs low. They won't be making anything from spin-off merchandising (where the real money is made on a show like The Lion King) since they seem only to have the stage rights. Which suggests we should expect a short run with high ticket prices. If they average £30 a ticket they can probably break even within a year, if the thing sells. And with a big enough publicity push up front, and legally-watertight but insistent echoes of the film's iconography, the producers must be hoping that the momentum will carry them into the Autumn and through to a second year. So, despite the touching claim of the show's producer that "we will search far and wide to find our Frodo", expect luke-warm casting, book and score in need of some proper development, and posters everywhere...

The producers seem to have no idea why they're doing it beyond the possibility of fast cash. Wallace is quoted in one report, saying, in all seriousness, "If Shakespeare can put all England on stage in Henry IV, I am confident we can put on the whole of Middle Earth". If he believes what he is saying, then he is an idiot. Why do they think that Shakespeare's ability to do one thing says anything about their ability to do something entirely different? Because what is the connection? Why Middle Earth? Why not Moominland? Or the planet Vulcan? Or Narnia? (Oh, beg pardon, the RSC got there first). And if he doesn't believe what he is saying, then he's a liar. Either way, it's not looking good.

Wouldn't it be kinder to just stop this whole thing now?

:: Theatre Worker Friday, May 30, 2003 [+] ::

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