“If you have been entirely satisfied by something obviously mediocre, may it not be that you were searching for something less than mediocre, and you found that which was just a little better than you expected?” – Edward Gordon Craig
In the past week or so, I’ve managed to catch three of the “Big Openings” of the last month; Othello at the National (still in previews when I saw it), The Low Road at the Royal Court and Peter and Alice at the Noel Coward. They’re all perfectly decent pieces of theatre in their own right and each manage to hold the audience’s attention whilst saying something about their subject matter, but ultimately they each failed to have any kind of lasting impact on me. I’ll admit first and foremost that I’m probably not the target audience for any of these pieces. I’m a young middle-class English and Theatre student with a penchant for Central European and avant-garde styles and am starting to get bored of written plays. From the off, none of this trio presents what I would classify as Good Theatre, so it’s perhaps a little unfair to use them as examples, but each is useful to the forthcoming argument. Though their directors (and, I imagine, a good handful of audience members) would probably suggest otherwise, these productions are generally made for a middle-class, middle-aged audience with a history of theatregoing.
And that’s not a Bad Thing. It’s perfectly acceptable to play to a niche. In fact, I’d suggest it’s impossible to have any kind of impact without thinking about some kind of target audience, even if that is a room full of extrapolated and exaggerated versions of yourself. In our diverse, complicated world, there’s no such thing as true universality, and it’d be foolish to try and play to that. But the implications for the wider theatrical ecology if we continue to play to the same demographic are potentially damaging.*
Hytner’s Othello has already been lauded and written about far more eloquently and fully than I can hope to do (in fact, one of the more interesting things about this production is how much it has caused the mainstream critics to up their game and actually write some pretty impressive pieces of theatre journalism, but that’s a discussion for another day), but I’d like to offer just a slightly different take. It’s true that it’s a superbly acted, considered and mature production (even if Billington’s note about the production being naturalistic isn’t quite true). Kinnear and Lester are well and truly sublime in their roles of Iago and Othello (though I was less impressed by Olivia Vinall’s Desdemona and Lyndsey Marshal’s Emilia, who didn’t quite capture the subtlety her role demands). And Hytner does a damned good job of exploring the themes of masculinity present in the text.
But none of this is really surprising. Hytner knows how to direct Shakespeare and make it relevant. But I found it difficult to really care about what was going on, and though I’ve heard many people praising the performances and discussing the careful nuance in the direction and Vicki Mortimer’s design, I’ve not heard anyone arguing about it. As far as I know from discussion I’ve encountered surrounding the production, it hasn’t engendered debate. How have we come to expect so little from our theatre that we don’t expect to make it cause an argument with those close to us upon leaving the auditorium?
This is also the major problem I have with Bruce Norris’ The Low Road, an eighteenth century morality fable about the fictional life of Jim Trumpett (a fairly uncharismatic Johnny Flinn) which is used to contemplate our modern attitudes towards capitalism. Narrated by Adam Smith (performed graciously by Bill Paterson), the play tells the story of a young upstart whose greed and ambition lead to a life of varying fortune which mirrors the boom and bust of the capitalist system. Unfortunately, however, there’s not much room for argument. What Norris fails to acknowledge is the difference between traditional, basic capitalism and the horrific individualism of neoliberalism and its offshoots, thus failing to say much to our current climate. Though the volatility inherent in the market system is partly to blame for contemporary crises, the main reason everything has gone so completely tits up is the traits unique to late capitalism.
The strongest aspect of the play is the scene straight after the interval, which sees a group of so-called “leading economists” from across the globe coming together to discuss the banking crisis and its implications. Here, we are invited to think about our own situation and the ogres who call the shots and take the rest of the world down with them. Particularly smart is the way in which our cast interacts with the audience even though we remain powerless to change events; the Occupy-esque demonstration comes not from us but from other performers tasked with the act of making a statement. Also impressive is Tom Pye’s keenly theatrical design, which places flats on a rail so they may be moved on and off stage like parts of a production line, creating images of that other era of Great American Capitalism, though here the feel of decay hints towards a post-Fordist landscape rather than one in its prime. Dominic Cooke’s slick staging adds to this effect, but doesn’t manage to shed any more light on Norris’ (lack of) argument.
It says something about the production that its strongest moment comes at the very top, when Paterson enters an empty stage, and with a huff fetches his own lectern muttering, in a supremely self-aware tone, “Subsidised to the hilt and we still have to do the manual labour ourselves” (or something like that). Within this one line – which doesn’t appear in the printed playtext – more is said about the themes explored in the text than in the entirety of the following three hours.
There’s similarly something of the unexplored idea in John Logan’s Peter and Alice, which tells the story of a meeting between the real-life inspirations for Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland (played by Ben Whishaw and Judi Dench, both of whom are completely brilliant). Though it feels like Logan has written his script in the hope that lines will be quoted in years to come, he does manage to capture a deep sadness which runs throughout the subtext of these books, and Michael Grandage’s staging opens up to become like the toy theatres we used to play with when we were little (what do you mean you didn’t do that?) so that we see these characters as both puppets and human beings.
But yet again I found it difficult to be enchanted by the thing, and couldn’t shake the feeling that the whole affair felt horribly nostalgic, pining not for childhood but for an era of conservative values. Logan’s script doesn’t feel like a celebration of childhood but a condemning of it, so that youth is seen as merely something which leads to unhappiness. Granted, the characters here who become melancholy and jaded are in slightly different circumstances to the rest of us and are subject to a lot more pressure, but the overall idea of childhood as despair permeates throughout.
I know my dissatisfaction with these three productions is probably just reflective of how tedious I’m starting to find mainstream British theatre at the moment, which to me doesn’t seem to live up to the full potential of what theatre has to offer. They’re all watchable and entertaining, but for me that’s not enough. I want to be excited, to be deeply moved, to be forced to think. I want to come out of the space and come close to falling out with my friends based on the themes the piece presents rather than whether or not it was good. I want to see something different.
*I’ve just read John McGrath’s A Good Night Out, which is a consideration of the possibility for working-class theatre, and it has probably had a fairly large impact on the things I’m thinking about theatrically at the moment.