Tag Archives: Jerusalem

Script or Spectacle?

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.


For those of you watching in black and white, the Capulets are playing in yellow.

Whilst watching the England match last week, I complained one would never pay to see a play during which, like the football, “nothing happened”. To this, a good friend of mine (a football fan) answered “Yes you would. Waiting For Godot. This football match is Waiting For Godot.” Since this conversation, my mind has been working overtime in trying to find the similarities between theatre and football. There are more than you may think.

Of course, they are completely different entities. One is a sport and the other art. Many of you may complain that it is impossible to compare the two, but when we look closer, we can see that in fact they have a lot in common. Indeed, they are likely to have been created for the same reason; entertainment. Theatre was a way of getting whole cities together in Ancient Greece to see various playwrights compete for a coveted prize. Football, at a basic level, was also played in Ancient Greece. Both theatre and football became refined in Medieval England and evolved to be the disciplines which we know today.

After that history lesson we look at other similarities. The main thing here is that they both create huge amounts of drama. Just as we sit biting our nails, heart pounding in the final few minutes of England’s decisive match, we sit in the Circle at the Apollo wondering the fate of Jonny ‘Rooster’ Byron in Jerusalem. Both have an immense power of catharsis, leaving us emotionally drained and waiting eagerly for next time.

The narrative arc of the England team at the present moment could be seen as one of either tragedy or farce. As our hedonistic protagonists run blindly into their final group match we will wonder whether or not the last two matches have been a build up to a tragic ending or simply minor mistakes. The past few weeks have been awash with headlines of various exits and entrances in the England camp, not unlike those which define The Importance of Being Earnest and Noises Off.

In both there is a feeling that we are able to predict the outcome but that once the show has begun it could go any way. Even if we know the story of Hamlet backwards, the best productions will make us believe we have never experienced it before, whilst even Spain is able to lose 1-0 to the perceived underdogs. We can have immense knowledge on the subject, but every preconception can turn out to be wrong.

Naturally, even though the outcome can be the same if two teams meet twice, no two football matches can be identical. In the theatre also, no two nights run in exactly the same way even if the script remains constant. As football players find different opportunities and use different tactics, so actors may vary their thought process and consider alternative ways of working. Thus every performance or match is very different.

Football is obviously embedded deep in the national psyche, but so too are Shakespeare and Wilde. We all remember impressive football matches just as most of the population can quote that immortal line from Hamlet. We can all become experts at certain times too, for while many of us swot up on the offside rule for big tournaments, we also pretend we know which production of Uncle Vanya sticks more closely to Chekhov’s original vision.

The last and most important similarity between the two is the presence of an audience. Without spectators the game or show is meaningless and it is largely for those watching that the ‘players’ in each work. A kick about in the park can be played to one bystander who doesn’t want to play whilst some plays are able to fill large amphitheatres. Without someone watching, each is largely pointless and they lose the reason for why they were first created; to entertain.

So what do you think? Are there any more similarities which you can think of. Or am I, once again, barking up the wrong tree?

“Jerusalem” by Jez Butterworth

at the Apollo Theatre, Saturday 24th April 2010


It is fitting that the last performance of the West End run of Jez Butterworth’s astonishing play Jerusalem should be on 24th April, meaning that the cast and crew had to pack up their belongings and leave the very same day Johnny Byron is forced to evict his caravan in Flintock woods. And just like Johnny, nobody wants to go.

The premise for the story is simple; it is St George’s day, and one man, living on his own in a caravan in the woods and host to many parties, is being forced to vacate his current premises in order that Kennet and Avon can build a new estate in the area. His friends Ginger, Lee, Davey, the Professor, Pea and Tanya join him at various points throughout the day as they go to and from the fair. Perhaps this indescribable simplicity is what makes the play so sublime, yet at the same time there are many layers which are all unveiled in parallel to the basic narrative.

Butterworth’s main gripes are with corporations whose double standards mean one person, the centre of a community, can be thrown out of his lifelong home in order that a few hundred new ones can be built. The playwright revels in English eccentricity and myths and creates a story which, while relevent in the modern world, could easily have been told in the past and will no doubt be repeated in the future.

Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, played extraordinarily by Mark Rylance, could be the one of the best characters ever to have been created for the English stage. Whilst on paper his antics and behaviour seem to be fairly despicable, we could not feel more empathy. His drug use, alcoholism and vulgar language are forgotten in the light of his compassion, independence and fantastically elaborate tales. He is a story-teller, and leaves no detail untold when reciting his encounter with a 90 foot tall giant and other amazing anecdotes. Mark Rylance embodies the role completely and there is no doubt that men like Rooster exist all over England.

Other inhabitants of this world are Mackenzie Crook’s Ginger, the outsider of the group with delusions of being a DJ, and Tom Brooke’s Lee, a man whose down-to-earth nature allows him to see in from another point of view. The performances of the rest of the cast are faultless and every word uttered is believed wholeheartedly.

Never before has such an impressive and organic set been seen on the London stage. Designed by Ultz, a shiny metal caravan is marooned amongst trees which stretch out to the roof and as live chickens peck away at the foliage we are reminded of happier and simpler times. Mimi Jordan Sherin’s moody yet imperceptible lighting design directs us who we should be watching without making itself obvious and Ian Dickenson’s tranquil sounds of birds and trees are constantly interrupted by planes and the sounds of modern living. 

The play swings from tragic to comic, bawdy to serious, extroverted to introverted. It is in the last act, however, that Ian Rickson’s production really comes into its own. As the inevitable climax draws closer it becomes unbearable to watch but it is that thought makes watching only more enticing. Byron’s last monologue as he bangs his drum to call the giants sends the audience’s collective heart beating and as the curtain comes down we are left shaking and wondering if any play will ever effect in the same way. Mark Rylance in his speech signalling the end of the run hinted that the play could be back in the near future, and possibly with the same cast. We live in hope.