Over the past few weeks, various productions have got me thinking about what I value more in theatre: good writing, or a good spectacle? It’s a fairly pointless question, for the two are not mutually exclusive, but hypothetically speaking, if we could only have one or the other, which would we choose?
My mind got kicked into gear after watching Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre. Visually, it is stunning. No one would argue with that. There are also some extraordinary performances on show from Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch. But Nick Dear’s script is laughable. It plods along, making absurd choices (“I’m blind you know”) which often just doesn’t feel real. In such an impressive production, however, the words come after effect. We don’t mind that emotion isn’t conveyed through language because visually and aurally we understand exactly what is happening.
And isn’t that exactly what theatre’s about? Theatre can do things that film can’t, and for this reason should be exploited. The fact that we’re watching trains rolling in and houses flying down live makes it all the more exciting, as we share the same space as this spectacle. Everyone’s talking about Frankenstein, regardless of the flabby text, because they are in awe of the show.
We know very little about Greek theatre, but one thing we do have quite a lot of information about is special effects. Artefacts show actors being winched in on cranes and bodies shuffled in on carts. Even at the dawn of theatre, then, practitioners understood the necessity of visual aids to create an impressive show.
In Shakespeare’s time, however, the emphasis was almost certainly on language. A simple stage allowed for no more than a few entrances from the gods and a reveal behind a curtain; scenes were set through dialogue and description, not set. Naturally, audiences went to see blood and guts in wars and battles, but on the whole this was a theatre of word.
So assuming great performances remain constant, which is more important? In the short-term, a spectacle will impress us more, appealing to our senses and creating maximum impact. In thirty years time, however, these performances will remain only in the minds of those who saw it (although as digital technology improves this could change). For the past century or so, spectacular performances can only be studied through basic photographs and descriptive accounts, but can never be appreciated in its entirety. A good script, however, is passed down through generations, unchanging and growing in greatness as more layers reveal themselves to us.
It’s my guess that Nick Dear’s script will not be studied in schools in the future. It’s quite possible, however, that Bruce Norris’ will. His beautifully crafted play would fit perfectly into a school syllabus and would be the same then as it is now. We can appreciate a good script on our own, in isolation, but a spectacle must be shared to be enjoyed.
But isn’t that what theatre’s about? It’s the shared experience that sets theatre apart from other art forms. And here is where the dichotomy lies. Intellectually, it feels like a well-written play should be given more praise. The months of painstaking work that are spent scribbling, crossing out and re-writing feel, on a cerebral level, to be more worthy of my attention. My brain tells me that it takes far more skill to create a script than to think about some images. But I know that’s not the case. Both are equally commendable and both warrant their place in theatre.
And here, perhaps, is a reason why we continue to return to the classics. The likes of Ibsen and Shakespeare offer us beautifully written, perfectly crafted plays which many audience members will know, allowing the director to take their own route and implant upon the words a more visual current (Rupert Goold’s Romeo and Juliet, for example). This way, they have the benefit of already having the words and meaning, so more focus can be given to ‘interpretation’. When a play is new, this is more difficult, for the script and director will probably have worked hand-in-hand for much of the rehearsal process.
Of course, this is a pointless debate; what many practitioners try to do is fuse all aspects of theatre, and their production will be more text-based or visual-based depending on the project. But sometimes we get an infusion of the two which blows us away. I am of course taking of shows like Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, which still have people taking years after the event. Here we had an exquisitely written play exposed in an extraordinary production which appealed to the senses. It is no wonder it was (and remains to be) such a hit – script and spectacle melded together to create something which was nigh-on theatrical perfection. And it is in anticipation of these moments for which we go to the theatre.