Apparently Michael Billington is writing something very similar to the below as I write, so you can read my piece here and not at the Guardian theatre blog where it was headed. Such is life.
Has theatre lost the ability to create stars? In his new book for the Social Affairs Unit, Look At Me, Sunday Times film and theatre critic Peter Whittle notes, “the days when the theatre made its own stars – stars who were as familiar to the general public as any movie idol – are well and truly over”. The book is an attack on a culture of narcissism and “the media's coverage of nonentities whose thirst for fame outstrips everything else”. The observation is made in passing while lamenting the wider phenomenon of instant celebrity. While Whittle’s own position is probably significantly to the right of most Guardian readers [and, uh, Postcards... readers], the issue should be of interest to both right and left alike. Why, in the midst of a culture that thrives ever more on celebrity, has theatre apparently opted out?
Similarly, it was interesting a few weeks ago to read Matt Wolf opine that the RSC shouldn't “try to hide that fact” that Jonathan Slinger was 'a star' and argue that “the RSC has always been in the business of creating stars. ”. My initial reaction was that surely the RSC was not in the business of creating stars so much as the business of putting on plays, mostly by Shakespeare. Under Michael Boyd, the company has returned strongly to the company’s original ensemble ethic of the 60s and 70s. The question of ‘stars’ in theatre was also one of the central questions raised at the Society of London Theatre’s recent panel debate, chaired by Michael Billington at the Royal Court.
In this age of mass and increasingly fragmented media, it certainly seems true to say that theatre can no longer create stars. Or rather, the goalposts of ‘stardom’ or ‘celebrity’ have been moved so far into the stratosphere that it takes repeated newspaper, magazine and television coverage for someone to count as a modern celebrity.
Another reason, however, could derive from a certain snobbery in theatre on one hand, and the result of decades of left-wing thought on the other. In the first instance, fame, the trappings of fame, and any attempt to court it are viewed as irredeemably vulgar. The second case, perhaps not entirely unrelated, is that thanks to decades of writers, actors and theatre companies adopting left-leaning to Marxist ideologies and methodologies, there has been a significant growth in ideas of The Ensemble, and of sharing out stage time, even distributing lines more fairly. This deliberate move away from hierarchical structures and ‘star statuses’ obviously has the effect of completely disabling theatre’s ‘star-making’ capacity.
Meanwhile ‘proper fame’ must now be measured in millions of people seeing one’s work. Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum – recently seen together in Speed the Plow are properly famous. So, I guess, is the Donmar Warehouse's recent Iago Ewan McGregor. The reason, however, is not their work in theatre but their long and illustrious film careers. Even British television struggles to create stars with as much glitz and glamour as the American film industry.
That said, it is an interesting development that now television is starting to create stars for theatre, albeit for the largest possible scale West End musicals. What is most fascinating about these shows is the way in which they ‘take the audience on a journey’ with the putative stars. The viewers invest in the candidates. In short, the way that these programmes turn a nice normal young woman into ‘a star’ is primarily to create a sense of public ownership.
This shift in the way that celebrity operates could partially explain why many actors are not keen to become involved in ‘celebrity’. The demands, it seems, are that one lays bare one’s entire personal life for public perusal if one is to stay on the front pages. Witness the media scrum a couple of years ago when Sienna Miller split up with Jude Law while starring in a spectacularly underpowered West End revival of As You Like It.
The question is, should we mourn the passing of stage celebrities, or rejoice that, by and large, theatre seems to get left alone by the tabloids and parasitic celebrity magazines? Would getting Rory Kinnear on the front of Heat actually make theatre appear more accessible, egalitarian and 'of the people', or would it simply cheapen everyone involved?