In a news feature in The Observer on the weekend, arts correspondent Vanessa Thorpe picked up where her sister paper The Guardian left off in its enquiry into the current state of British theatre last week. Where The Guardian worried away that theatres are taking fewer risks as theatres face funding challenges, with David Hare and Mark Ravenhill quoted in support of an argument saying that they were avoiding experimental work in favour of familiar, feelgood fare, The Observer now asked if there’s been a collective loss of nerve as theatres rush to the bottom line of putting bums on seats, and not making them too uncomfortable as they do so. (And no, we’re not talking about the state of the seats themselves; if theatre is all about discomfort, I had my most physically uncomfortable night in the theatre in ages at Hay Fever at the Coward last week, where the seat was so low that it felt like we were sitting on the floor).
Alistair Spalding, artistic director of Sadler’s Wells, is quoted as saying that you can recognise truly innovative art because it prompts some sort of emotional discomfort: “You cannot call a performance or a work of art avant garde unless it gives the audience that uncomfortable, perhaps even painful feeling.”
At Sadler’s Wells, that has involved dance shows like David St-Pierre’s Un Peu de Tendresse, in which Observer dance critic Luke Jennings described how one naked dancer, invading the stalls, pulled his glasses from his face, “then deliberately, clearing his throat, he gobs phlegm all over the lenses, and with a sneer, hands them back to me”, and said, “the experience was the most unpleasant I’ve ever had in a theatre”.
Another dance critic, the Daily Telegraph’s Mark Monahan, was given a more bemusing experience, as one of the dozen dancers tried “to shove his wizened little willy in my left ear”, which he described as “very much like being assaulted with a left-over cocktail sausage.”
If that’s what Spalding means by a show that gives its audience an “uncomfortable, perhaps even painful feeling”, perhaps it is better to stay at home. Why pay good money to be spat at or have your ear penetrated? Art should be for everyone, not just those with low self-esteem issues who want that view of themselves confirmed.
But perhaps it’s precisely because we’re mostly unshockable nowadays that some artists feel it necessary to try to go the extra mile (or couple of inches) in trying to shock us. In any case, perhaps the very idea of avant-garde art is defunct; the Observer quotes Tim Marlow, who runs the White Cube art galleries in London, as saying, “I don’t think there has been art that you can call that for 20 years,” he said. “The difficulty is that you have to know what you are going against if you are counterculture. And there are so many cultures now.”
The culture also regularly absorbs the counter-culture; what was once innovative, like say Punchdrunk’s immersive theatrical experiences, quickly becomes old hat as other companies absorb their techniques. Even the Young Vic’s Hamlet began with a backstage walk-through to set up the scene of it being set in some kind of secure mental institution.
And recently seeing Joe Hill-Gibbons’s production of The Changeling at the Young Vic and Declan Donnellan’s latest take on Tis Pity She’s A Whore at the Barbican’s Silk Street Theatre in quick succession, I was struck by how Donnellan’s modern-dress ways of illuminating these old texts has clearly influenced younger creators like Hill-Gibbons.
The Observer theatre critic Susannah Clapp hits the nail on the head when she says, “I think of innovation in the arts as about particular pinpoints of excitement.” It’s not so much about finding a movement but as identifying particular artists doing exciting work. That axis is constantly shifting; but as Susannah also notes, “The National Theatre has had a brilliant era, taking risks such as Jerry Springer: The Opera.” One could also cite the risk they took with London Road, and in the process made two of the best new British musicals of the century so far.
Equally, War Horse was never a dead cert: as David Hare recalled to The Guardian, “We’re back to what Ken Loach said when David Cameron made his moronic remarks about the cinema [arguing for lottery money to be used to support mainstream films that would be commercial successes]. I remember the artistic director of the National Theatre tearing his hair out about War Horse and going round saying ‘we’re about to lose a million pounds’. If one could see the War Horses coming and make those calculations, it would be a much easier world to live in.”
Nor, of course, do we see theatre events happening in isolation of each other but in a context; and it’s the ongoing job of the theatre (and of the critics in writing about it) to set it in one. And though for most people going to the theatre is an occasional past-time, not a weekly (or even, in my case, nightly) one, theatres need to stand out from the crowd and each other, hence the relatively new phenomenon of ‘event theatre’.
The start next week of a season of Michael Frayn plays at Sheffield — taking over the main Crucible stage, the studio and the Lyceum — will do a bit of both; it will provide a context to his work and also be an event. As Lyn Gardner wrote in her Guardian preview column in The Guide, “It used to be the case that playwrights had to die before they had a retrospective of their work. But there’s been a shift in recent years. The Royal Exchange in Manchester staged a season by the great Robert Holman and both Peter Gill and David Hare have had mini seasons at Sheffield.”
Now it is Frayn’s turn; and I can’t help feeling that Hampstead Theatre, where Frayn is on the board, have missed a trick in not offering him a similar accolade. (Instead, Hampstead Theatre will in June host a three-play season by Ireland’s Druid Theatre Company of three plays by Tom Murphy.)
But an event doesn’t have to be a season; it can be just one show, like the arrival of Elevator Repair Service’s current New York hit Gatz to the West End’s Coward in June, which is a dramatic recitation of the entire length of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which runs for some six and a half hours. And tonight’s opening of All New People at the Duke of York’s is another sort of event: when I went to see it on Saturday afternoon, I was bemused coming out of the theatre to see a complete mob scene beside the stage door entrance in front of the theatre.
That’s testament to the celebrity status of its star (and author) Zach Braff, making his West End debut. Never mind what tomorrow’s reviews may say; if just some of those people eager to catch a stage door sight of him are to go by, this show is already an event.