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Trampling down different theatrical boulevards and muddy fields

Theatre is a constantly evolving art form — from the top (of who makes it and where they make it) to the all-important bottom line of who receives it, i.e us the audience and how we see it (not to mention how we behave as we do so, as witness the controversy I ignited last week over the matter of Bianca Jagger’s appalling manners).

Theatre, of course, doesn’t exist without its audience — as Steve Marmion, artistic director of Soho Theatre, said earlier this year, “Art is pointless without an audience. Unless it’s a two-way process and you make work with your audience in mind, it is just an act of masturbation.” But it also doesn’t exist without people who make it, and places in which to make it, either, which may or may not be theatre buildings.

Last Friday a major change was signalled for the Royal Court — unquestionably one of London’s most important theatres —with the appointment of Vicky Featherstone as its artistic director.

Earlier that same day Matt Trueman had posted a Guardian blog that was headlined “Has the Royal Court lost its edge?”, in which he cited theatre academic and blogger Dan Rebellato’s claim, in his blog review of the Court’s current production of Mike Bartlett’s Love Love Love, that the Royal Court had drifted towards offering a diet of boulevard comedies of which this was the latest, at least in the way it was presented if not as written.

Rebellato reminds us that “Dominic Cooke’s avowed intention, when he took over as artistic director in 2006, was to bring middle class life onto its stages to be examined and scrutinized.” And that examination, he adds, has been a good thing: “Many of these plays have subjected middle class life to unflinching scrutiny in a way that was very uncomfortable for its audience. Middle-class values certainly need to be examined, critiqued, parodied, taken apart, put back together, violated, captured and questioned.”

But then Rebellato wonders if “the scrutiny can be blunted, by a knowing complicity of audience and stage, and by the corseted neatness of play and production.” And that, he believes, is what may have happened to Love Love Love: “I suspect this play was better was Paines Plough were touring it. On tour, they can’t have had such an elaborate set and such elaborate scene changes.” And it was being watched, possibly, by a different audience to the one that Rebellato felt he was watching it with: “I felt, watching this on Saturday, that the audience was simply enjoying the impersonation of types rather than feeling, in any way, skewered.”

He doesn’t blame the play - “plays can be produced in thousands of ways, radical and complacent” — but he complains that this one “has been produced for the boulevard and I’m pretty confident Mike Bartlett would never describe his play as a boulevard comedy. Are we seeing a resurgence of a theatre of reassurance and comfort at the very time when the values of our society should be held up to scrutiny and question? A timid theatre, whose soft contours will smother all dissent? I’d like to see radicals occupy the boulevards again.”

Well, Rebellato may have got his wish sooner than he thought. Not just because Featherstone is the first female artistic director in the 56 year history of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, but also because of where she has come from, as artistic director of “the UK’s first non-building-based national theatre, the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS), since it began, and who before that was artistic director of the new writing company Paines Plough”, as Lyn Gardner put it in The Guardian.

As Lyn goes on to say, “With another top London theatre, the Donmar, also being run by a woman, Josie Rourke, for the first time, Featherstone’s tenure at the Royal Court may signal a change of culture in a theatre world where most directors are male and most of the plays staged are still written by men.” 

But its not just about gender; it’s also about new forms and new places in which the work is being done. Many of National Theatre of Scotland’s shows have played in non-traditional spaces; and Lyn also points to the fact that she’s been unafraid to “push at the boundaries of what theatre can and might be. Two years ago she directed Wall of Death, Stephen Skrynka’s attempts to learn to ride the fairground spectacle, which owed as much to live art as it did to a traditional play.”

Lyn goes on to say, “This all bodes well for the Court, an institution that sometimes looks as if it is struggling to redefine its place in a theatre culture that has dramatically shifted over the last decade to embrace many forms of theatre taking place in many different kinds of spaces. With Madani Younis’ recent appointment at Bush suggesting that other new writing theatres are looking to keep up with the changing times, Featherstone should turn out to be exactly what the Royal Court needs to keep its radical edge.”

I’m personally surprised the Royal Court didn’t opt for Jeremy Herrin, Dominic Cooke’s long-time deputy artistic director, just as I was equally surprised that the Bush didn’t opt for Tamara Harvey, both of them insider candidates who’d done exemplary work at each of those theatres. But sometimes loyalty and track record isn’t what theatre boards want; they want novelty and a future vision. As someone tweeted to me on Friday, Herrin would, in his view, have meant more of the same.

Featherstone also hasn’t run a building-based company yet, so it’s an even bigger step for her to go from a theatre culture without walls to running a theatre very much defined by them, even if Dominic Cooke has already broken down some of those walls by taking Royal Court productions to sites in Elephant and Castle and Peckham as part of the Theatre Local project.

And reinventing the wheel sometimes only brings it full circle. In his review of Babel, the outdoor show being presented as part of the World Stages London in an apparently muddy park in north London, Michael Coveney notes, “This is a hippie-dippy-type festival event, with coloured lights and rock concert vibe, no different from what Welfare State were doing 40 years ago.” It is co-produced by Kneenigh offshoot WildWorks, the BAC, the Lyric Hammersmith, Stratford East and the Young Vic, and Coveney goes on to say, “Director Bill Mitchell - recently responsible for Michael Sheen’s acclaimed promenade performance in The Passion in Port Talbot - is fully signed up to BAC’s mission ‘to invent the future theatre.’ But what does this mean? Babel feels like a nostalgic throw-back…”

One of the advantages of missing the Thursday press performance, apart from missing the lousy weather that night, was that I was able to read reviews like this on Friday morning and hastily re-plan my weekend diary. Yes, I’m always saying you can’t necessarily believe what the critics say, or at least one critic says, and of course my job is all about making my own mind up. But given that I saw seven shows last week anyway, there was no need to see one that, as Charles Spencer’s review put it, is “dramatically inert and involves a great deal of tiresome queuing and tramping through mud.”

And tramping through mud isn’t exactly what I need right now: as regular readers of this blog will know, two weeks ago I had back surgery. But if you think I took the opportunity to have a night in, I took myself instead to Jermyn Street Theatre, a theatre with a growing reputation for rare re-discoveries; they don’t get rarer or odder than Charles Dyer’s Mother Adam, a two-hander about a dysfunctional mother-son co-dependent relationship. But it’s one of the miracles of British theatre that wondrous actors like Linda Marlowe and Jasper Britton will come to tiny spaces like this to work. Rather than encountering what, by all accounts, was muddy theatre in every sense in a park off the Caledonian Road; I was happy to be in the comfort of Jermyn Street Theatre revisiting a blast from the all-but-forgotten past in such an exemplary production.

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Of course, Jeremy Herrin long since moved on from his Royal Court Theatre Deputy Artistic Directorship to his current role of part time Associate Director there. Has it been reported that he applied to be AD?

Vicky Featherstone was responsible for Paines Plough's season of four new productions from January to May 2005 at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which bodes well for programming a building based theatre company.

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