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Shenton's View

Putting Hampstead Theatre on the map…

The one bit of theatre news that chased me down to my holiday last week, as I mentioned here only yesterday, was the fact that Antony Clark has finally resigned as artistic director at Hampstead Theatre after seven years at the helm.

In some ways, it is amazing that he has lasted this long: I can’t think of another theatre that has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous bad reviews like it has over the same time period. In 2004, Nick Stafford’s play Love Me Tonight was described in one review as “a play so ghastly that I can only assume Hampstead is now using a pin to select plays for production.”

Then again, four years later, 2008 began with a review of Penny Gold’s The President’s Holiday, based on the diaries of Gorbachev’s wife Raisa, that asked, “Did anyone at Hampstead even bother to read this play before staging it? If they had done, surely they might have noticed the complete absence of tension, the unbearably stilted dialogue, the contrived parallels between the fate of the president and that of the last tsar, the thin characterisations (in particular, the Gorbachevs’ hysterical daughter) and an English tone so inappropriate that Gorbachev resembles a headmaster at a minor English public school attempting to quell a tuck shop rebellion. ‘This is intolerable,’ he huffs and puffs. It is. Roll on the theatrical revolution in NW3.”

It didn’t arrive in time for April de Angelis’ Amongst Friends to be given house room at the theatre at the start of this summer, where one review labelled it a “preposterous comedy that comes with shades of JB Priestley and such an overload of creakiness that for all its references to bankers and politicians, you would have thought it was written early last century rather than last week”.

All three of those reviews, were of course, just one-star, and — as it happens — were written by The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner. At the start of the summer, Charles Spencer began his review of April de Angelis’ Amongst Friends in the Daily Telegraph by declaring, “Another day, another dud at Hampstead”; while Ian Kennedy Martin’s Berlin Hanover Express had also been judged by him to be “another dud for Hampstead.” In Time Out, Andrew Haydon’s judgement of the same play in Time Out declared that “Hampstead Theatre’s unerring lack of talent for picking new plays continues with this turkey.” (On the other hand, Michael Coveney’s review in The Independent gave it four stars, calling it “a powerful slice of period drama”, and Tim Walker in the Sunday Telegraph gave it five stars).

There are many other examples. No wonder that, as Michael Billington noted in a Guardian blog last week, Clark “has taken a lot of flak: some of it justified, some not.” He notes that the theatre has had its share of duds - but also says it has done some good new plays. “But, in theatre as in politics, there comes a point when a consensual media narrative takes hold. I guess Clark must have got fed up with being told, whatever the evidence, that Hampstead was in a state of terminal decline.”

He’s right - the evidence I provided above is only a partial picture. There have been a couple of West End transfers - for Losing Louis and a revival of What the Butler Saw; some awards (for Comfort me with Apples, which won author Nell Leyshon the Evening Standard’s Most Promising Playwright Award, for James Phillips’ The Rubenstein Kiss, which won the TMA Award for Best New play and the John Whiting Award), and for Dennis Kelly’s Taking Care of Baby, which won the Wolff Whiting Award), and some popular hits.

But the trouble is that a bad smell has attached to the place, and it has become difficult to dispel. Last September I wrote here how “I am usually depressed nowadays by the prospect of visiting Hampstead Theatre - whereas I am delighted by the idea of going to the Arcola. That’s because the Arcola has managed to build my trust in the last few years that my time there is usually going to be well rewarded - whereas at Hampstead my hopes for that outcome have been serially eroded. The Arcola may not be the easiest theatre to travel to, but it is always a pleasure to arrive; the reverse feels true at Hampstead.” On that occasion I was writing after the experience of seeing another terrible show there, Turandot, and said that “it added another dire evening there to the sense memory that already attaches to the place”. The effect, in other words, is cumulative, and you go there now not in hope but in fear.

Whoever takes over now, of course, has a tough act to follow: to rebuild the trust critics and theatregoers used to have in this theatre. So what’s the answer? Michael Billington suggests that “Hampstead has to redefine its purpose”, and to this end he proposes that Hampstead shifts its policy away from being a new writing theatre - where, as he says, it is “now competing in an increasingly crowded market” - and explores “the more neglected plays (British, Irish, American) of the last 100 years.”

Michael notes, “I can already hear the roar of protest from living writers”; and they duly check in, including the ever-articulate David Eldridge, in the 40 comments so far posted in reply. And the problems, of course, go deeper than simply the tastes of an artistic director and his literary manager, and the supply and demand of new writing: they are also to do with the entire culture by which news plays are processed and nurtured in the theatre.

But what is also in no doubt, as Michael Coveney puts it, is that “Hampstead needs a serious shake-up and shake-out. It hasn’t maintained its profile in the commercial sphere and it’s failed to translate the exciting work in its youth theatre programme into main stage energy, in the way that Dominic Cooke has so notably done at the Royal Court. The place seems smug and sleepy, too.”

It’s time to rouse this potentially sleeping giant. I’ve previously wondered aloud whether the Bush could take it over - I was writing in January 2008 when the Bush was under threat from the Arts Council, and said then, “Perhaps it’s time for the Bush - who have been looking to relocate from the pub on the corner of Shepherd’s Bush Green for some time now - to simply take over Hampstead. Or perhaps Hampstead’s grant could be reallocated to the Bush and other new writing venues and companies, with Hampstead given to a commercial management to run as an off-West End house.”

The Bush’s former artistic director Mike Bradwell posted a reply at the time, “Mark Shenton may also be interested to know that in 1982 Hull Truck were trying to build a new theatre and having difficulties .Lincolnshire and Humberside Arts Association stepped in and gave them Spring Street after first removing the failing organisation that was running it. Hull Truck have been there ever since.”

Times change, of course, and Hull Truck have this year opened their own purpose-built theatre. Hampstead’s problems, it seems, began when they exchanged their own supposedly temporary accommodations that they had operated out of for some 40 years, for their own purpose-built space. So it may be giving the Bush a poisoned chalice to ask them to inherit it, but Josie Rourke, who runs the Bush, is surely a possible candidate to run Hampstead now.


I thought that The Hampstead Theatre's response to Michael Billington's Guardian Blog was rather telling. They listed the authors that that have featured during Antony Clark's tenure, most of whom are respected within the industry.
It seemed to indicate to me that the Hampstead have a tendency to commission the author rather than the play and possibly lack the abilty to whip a play into shape if it is not going well during development.

This isn't an entirely new thing. In the 90s I began to notice a preponderence of what might be termed "difficult second plays" (a new play by a hot author which didn't quite work) at the Hampstead.

One thing about the Hampstead that I'm yet to find out is whether the Hampstead ever commissioned plays that had featured in one of their own Start Nights

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Mark, I should point out that my critcism's are made of the new writing scene in general. Not every point I make applies to every major new writing venue and when the points I make do I apply they apply with varying degrees of emphasis venue by venue. What I'm taking about is the overall picture many playwrights see and experience.

As for TRP Watson, this is exactly the sort of ill-informed comment which drives playwrights mad. Whatever critcisms people have about Hampstead (and there are evidently many whether they are fully justified or not) the way to make things better certainly isn't by enforcing more and more and more endless rewriting and development. They play often isn't improved, and often different problems arise in the play - and massively rewritten work can often end up looking like the theatrical equivalent of those strange folk who wander around LA after too much plastic surgery - a bit freakish and probably would have been best left with a wonky nose.

It is important for our dedicated new writing venues to put on difficult second plays even if they don't quite work because writers learn from this experience and if they're good get better and if not they disappear. This is part of the reason why we have subsidy. One of the worst things about this insistence that everything that appears on our new writing stages from newer writers is so polished to the nth degree is that it sets up an expectation only for "success" and "finish" rather than the fresh talent and voice which is in itself interesting - and an interesting script even - if it is flawed - being worth it.

Also how does one commission a play which doesn't exist? This is another heap of dung to have emerged in the last decade. The play won't even exist until it is embodied in the theatre and experienced by an audience. As David Hare says "the play is in the air". One can only ever really back a playwright to do his or her thing and this what the subsidized theatre should be trying to do.

The TV route we seem to be going down for the newer writers now of pitch idea, write treatment, rewrite treatment, write a few scenes for scratch/rough night, get notes, write draft, workshop, write draft, write another draft, have reading, get rejected, get passed on another theatre, repeat process... will lead to a culture as bad as it is in America or as it inTV.

Mr Eldridge is right. If theatres keep developing works ad nauseum until they are "ready" we will be left with nothing but plays that are far too polished and not challenging to the audience and they will move further and further away from the author's intention. Why can't there be a new writing theatre that reads a play and says: Yes. we'll produce this as is? Or maybe a ask the author if he or she wants to change it - can't we let return the muscle of the production to the playwright? If a playwright wants guidance of the literary manager or the artistic director of a theatre than fine let the "developers" have their way. But if the theatre believes in the playwright then they should show their faith in him or her by saying: Thanks, this is terrific and we'll head into production with this script. Flaws and all. Too much input is killing the theatre. Can you imagine what a play such as Faith Healer would've become if it had been "developed"?
Hampstead has their scratch nights, and their community outreach schemes etc. but they seemed to have been heavily influenced by enhancement money and projects from commercial producers. Where is the artistic vision in that?

It was clearly deeply foolish of me to use a phrase like "whipping into shape... during development", especially as I agree with much of what David Eldridge said.
Any play accepted by a theatre whether it starts as a glint in the writer's eye or is a fully performable third draft, needs to go through a process before it is put on the stage.
I used the word development, possibly wrongly, to describe that process which may be a little as a spell-check and the odd mystic utterance about problems in act three and should not be as prescriptive as the sort of thing that Mr Eldridge describes.
I do believe that the writer's vision should be paramount and that it can be damaged by over-polishing but there will be come times when some form of intervention could help.

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