The problem in British theatre at the moment is that, give or take, there really isn’t that much of a problem. Well, that’s not true. There are problems, but everyone writing on theatre knows what they are. An unforeseen consequence of the theatrical comment blogsophere (reviewing is obviously different) is that it has, in roughly a year or two, done an alarmingly good job of identifying all the key issues in contemporary theatre; itemising them; discussing them; and leaving them fully annotated and in a neat handy-to-view package so that anyone with the slightest interest in theatre now has an invaluable guide. The net effect of this is that, unless we are going to start recycling issues just to fill space, we’re going to need something new to discuss pretty soon. But there’s not a whole lot of new on the horizon. This year looks to have reached the point where it will release its Greatest Hits album and shuffle out of the limelight into retirement, rather than hoping to provoke any great controversy with an unexpectedly radical paradigm shift in panto-land, or something.
In such cases, I suppose it is traditional to do some sort of round-up of the year. In fact, since I started writing this yesterday afternoon both Alison Croggan and The Guardian have posted theirs. So, in the spirit of festive reflection, here’s list of my Top Ten shows (in alphabetical order):
Attempts on Her Life
Hippo World Guest Book
Merchant of Venice (Globe)
Shoot / Get Treasure / Repeat
Taking Care of Baby
The Ugly One
Women of Troy
I’m sure I’ve forgotten to include something wonderful that I really shouldn’t have forgotten [edit: yes, Macbeth]. Apologies for that. However, looking at this list, I’m stuck by how mainstream my year has been. There are only two shows from Fringe venues on the list, and both of those are in Edinburgh - and in Edinburgh terms, neither The Pleasance nor The Underbelly are exactly off the beaten track. So two shows from the National, two from the Royal Court, two from - remarkably - the Hampstead, plus one Globe and one Lyric Hammersmith. And looking at my overall list, those seem to be pretty much the theatres I’ve been visiting most regularly this year. I saw virtually everything at the Court, a high percentage at the National, and a fair smattering at the others. On the other hand, I don’t think I once made it to The Oval House or Theatre 503, despite having often had good reasons for wanting to.
I increasingly worry about the lack of experimental work I’m seeing. Is it me failing to find it, or is it largely not there to be found? Or are there other considerations apart from, until recently, having a job which wrote off theatre-going every other week of the year? There’s an excellent TheatreVoice discussion on criticism, in which the Evening Standard’s Kieron Quirke makes the interesting suggestion that blog-reviewers and website critics (i.e. people like me), should, along with Time Out, be the ones who scout out the best of the work on the fringe. It’s a nice thought, but there is an equally valid case for younger critics seeing the same shows as their senior counterparts in order to provide a different perspective. After all, one of the ongoing highlights of the Guardian’s theatre coverage is the chalk and cheese tastes of Michael Billington and Lyn Gardner who, quite without rancour, frequently post diametrically opposite opinions on various pieces of work. One of my proudest moments this year was when - following the kicking it got from the mainstream press - a quote from my review of Attempts On Her Life was used as the top notice on the National’s website (in fact, it’s still there). It was the first time that I had any idea that my online reviews might carry any weight, or “counted” with the theatres concerned at all.
There is also the question of “importance”. This is a much trickier issue. What constitutes “important” theatre? It’s one of those questions that has been batted around the blogsophere so much that its battered and bloodied form is scarcely still recognisable as a question. Writer and director Richard Hurst, commenting on my Women of Troy review (on Facebook, not under the review), suggested that it was one of those words that, along with pretentious, should be consigned to the dustbin for lazy thinking. I suspect he’s probably right in terms of the actual word, but the concept remains crucial, not least when trying to prioritise a review schedule. Being largely free of anyone else’s wider agenda, I do now tend to view the National and the Royal Court as two of the most “important” theatres in London.
This is a pretty new state of affairs. The National under Trevor Nunn never felt like an especially vital place, while the Royal Court under Ian Rickson slid slowly but inexorably toward becoming a complete basket case. So it’s not simply the buildings or their history. It is to do with the sense that they are trying to engage with both the world and with new ways of making work. The BAC really ought to figure, too, but with the relentless turnover of work there - with the exception of the ultra-long-running Masque of Red Death runs there seem to last about four days at most - it feels like one could spend virtually one’s whole life there and never see anything else. I know this is partly David Jubb’s intention - to critic-proof the building by never having anything on long enough for a printed opinion to be able to catch it during its run - but it still strikes me as ultimately limiting.
At the risk of echoing Peter Bradshaw’s comments on the Donmar’s Othello, I guess it still feels important to me that something should be see-able by the public. This is probably a reaction I should interrogate a bit more closely, since it completely rules out one-off events like The Sultan’s Elephant, for example, from having any claim to “importance” when clearly the reverse is true. But the idea that something only available to a maximum of 200 people can be “important” is a difficult one to negotiate. Obviously it can be the case. And often the exclusivity will necessarily make the event in question all the more special. But “important” often carries an implication of being somehow more wide-reaching. But as Chris Goode has observed, “upstream” work (as opposed to mainstream work) realises its importance through influence, which again is hard for a critic to second guess. After all, influence cannot make itself felt immediately. So, I guess I need to keep working on how I choose what I’m going to see. Of course, to an extent, it is always going to be something of a lottery - Complicité’s A Disappearing Number is a case in point of a work that really should have been important, and just wasn’t in any way shape or form.
A recent email from one of the FIT staff related a comment made by Jan Lauwers of Needcompany:
“Jan said, with quite brilliant insouciance, that seeing work that doesn’t change his definition of theatre is a waste of his time.”
It’s an admirable standpoint for an artist, but feels slightly less tenable for a critic. After all, someone needs to go to see Desperately Seeking Susan just to check that it’s every bit as dreadful as everyone suspects, in order to save their time, or else shout from the rooftops about how wrong they are and how unmissable it is. It’s filthy work, really, but someone has to do it. To this end, you can all look forward to a very grumpy review of the Barbican’s “posh panto” Jack and the Beanstalk, once I’ve also seen its main competitor at the Old Vic on Thursday.
In other news:
My colleague from the Munich trip Anna Teuwen’s blog continues to find and describe some fascinating corners of German theatre, while the dazzlingly industrious Ott Karulin is also well worth keeping an eye on. Then there’s Chris Goode’s baffling festive quiz - well, baffling insofar as I haven’t listened to the MP3s yet - which, unusually for a quiz, is more of a pleasure to read than it is possible to answer.
And, if you haven’t already read it, I should also point you in the direction of my latest cynical offering, at the Guardian’s Theatre Blog.
Off the blogsophere, I should draw your attention to the interview with Postcards’s Most Famous Friend, Khalid Abdalla, from yesterday’s Guardian about his starring role in the forthcoming film of The Kite Runner.
Finally, in spite of Postcards’s legendarily poor nightlife, I did catch the excellent up-and-coming young popular beat group the Official Secrets Act yesterday (review forthcoming, I hope) and was forcibly reminded just how great they are. I heartily recommend them to music lovers and theatre fans alike.