Monday 20 July 2015

Shorts: why even theatre?

[959 words]

Cate Blanchett in David Hare's Plenty back in 1949

Having recently moved flats (well, March), I’ve been very gradually going through my Old Boxes of Stuff. Yesterday I happened to be going through one which had a bunch of old theatre programmes, Edinburgh flyers, and copies of the then print-only NSDF magazine Noises Off all dating from ‘97 to‘02. This was the period when I started having any interest in theatre *at all*. It’s also from when I was at Leeds, through two years of living in London, up to the end of an abortive PGCE in Cambridge (I’ll spare Nuffield Southampton Artistic Director Sam Hodges’s blushes by not scanning his short piece on “My first year as a student actor” from Varsity).

Given how much I fell for theatre as an artform at NSDF‘97 – I’d never studied it at school or college, and wasn’t studying it at university, except as the written texts of William Shakespeare et al as part of Eng.Lit. – you’d think that this box would hold the key to a whole load of great memories of inspiring productions. Not so. In fact, it’s almost the exact opposite. Programmes of stuff I remember seeing and hating (why was I ever even at Martin Night at the King’s Head?), whole wretched season brochures of stuff that didn’t even remotely appeal – Jesus, the Almeida, the RSC in London (although, silly me, I should have gone and seen David Tennant’s Romeo). At the same time, stuff that I would now have killed to have seen – HEINER GOEBBELS DID STUFF AT THE LYRIC HAMMERSMITH??? – but that back then no one was making a fuss about. Or if someone was making a fuss, I was completely missing it. I mean, did I buy a paper every day? No. Did I buy Time Out every week? No. Did they write about that stuff anyway? No.  And, Christ, the internet? Useless. I mean, I say this as someone who was reviewing occasionally for a website from August 2000, but I don’t remember there being much by way of A Conversation. But, yeah, apart from maybe Howard Barker’s Wrestling School production of Scenes from an Execution at the Barbican in 1999, I don’t remember seeing much mainstream theatre when I first came to London that excited me.

All of which points me towards three conclusions.

One: I am deeply envious of young people leaving university this year. No; obviously in many, many ways, I’m really not. I graduated with about 50p left in my bank account, and no debts, having had a free university education and a full maintenance grant as well (which went a long way in Leeds in 1996). But, at the same time, I hardly knew anyone except the people I’d met at Uni, at NSDF, and in Edinburgh. Proper Theatre felt pretty much like an impregnable fortress. Perhaps it still does to people leaving uni now, but, my God, the amount of information out there now, the discussions you can have access to just by following a few people on Twitter, or Facebook, and opening your laptop (*laptop*!), getting wi-fi in a café (*wi-fi*!), or just on your phone (*ON YOUR FREAKING PHONE*!!!)...

Two: When I got into theatre, I didn’t get into it because I thought what existed was great, but because I loved its potential. I mean, Christ, I went to Leeds with a guitar, a battered copy of T.S. Eliot’s Greatest Hits, and bunch of Sisters of Mercy CDs and black clothes; I didn’t *plan* to become a theatre critic, FFS. But as the lead singer of that silly band once said, “I really like doing things the hard way. I always seem to head for the nearest spot of trouble...” (3.31 if you can really be bothered), and I think my 14-year-old self might have unconsciously adopted that as A Really Good Maxim To Live By.

Three: Theatre in Britain now is in a better state than it has ever been before, as far as I’m concerned. I like more of the work I see now than I did (nearly) two decades ago by, what? roughly 80 per cent? (rough guess). And more even than just a decade ago (by maybe as much as 60% or 70%? Does anyone remember 2005 as a particularly vintage year for theatre?)


There is an inevitable “BUT” to all this, though, isn’t there? Since 1997 I’ve also got 18 years older. I’m nearly forty now. I am, to all intents and purposes part of *The Establishment*, no matter how much I might like to kid myself otherwise. (I’m equally willing to concede that this might be news to The Establishment, and know I’m definitely not a big or important part of it. Just that I can’t really claim *outsider* credentials any more.)

As such, I suppose I have to face the fact that this is probably as good as it’s ever going to get. From now on, what I can look forward to is a bunch of similarly difficult young people with tastes diametrically opposed to my own, for no other reason than some generational quirk, and their gradual struggle to remake a proportion of theatre to their own tastes, which I don’t even fully recognise as theatre, let alone art. Is this the inevitable fate of the ageing theatre-lover? Looking at the Billingtons and Hares, I guess maybe my generation now has about a decade to get a bit more complacent as everything goes our way, before we really start to see a younger generation who think that we’re talking complete shit, and are entirely out of touch with the way the world actually works now. And what theatre even means, or how it should work. When you think about it like this, you can’t help envy Tynan dying at 53.

(But I don’t.  Might write about why tomorrow...)

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