What are we to do? It’s a golden age of London theatre. Is it? Sometimes I walk in and out of shows and am just knocked sideways by how slick and competent everything is. When it comes to product, we have got some top people and the public are lapping it up. And honestly, it doesn’t seem that a few months can go by without something really, genuinely good being on somewhere within the London postal area. Has it always been like this? Did I miss it before? Doesn’t it feel like the designs are more interesting, the writers and directors interested in difficult questions, probing the possibilities? the actors.. well, the actors are a bit variable. Perhaps the casting directors didn’t get the memo. But I do feel like it’s a healthy time
And yet, and yet.. Is it fuck. Aren’t we wallowing in self-congratulatory, unambitious mediocrity?
What could have been more depressing than the Young Vic’s Prayer for My Daughter? Not least for the Vic itself, who presumably set out to pack the seats with hip young theatregoers who like the 70s, like sleazy cop drama, like retro, like Americana (if not America, necessarily), and ended up with a proper dud on their hands. Just a sloppily written, clumsily plotted feast of the predictable and obvious, a handsome but interest- and ideas-free production of a play-by-numbers, Prayer… didn’t seem to have any ambition at all. At least The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each other had some – but how it squandered it on surely the most misconceived production of this script ever. How many people walked onto that stage in the NT’s lengthy rendition? I don’t think I believed in more than about three of them. The rest were sloppy physical caricatures, stagy comic turns no different from some sort of ultra-Fast Show. This vision of the play as a sort of surreal music-hall variety seemed confirmed by the direction of Jason Thorpe’s sneering clown – an indulgent routine that shared nothing with anyone. Thousands of people watching, and an opportunity firmly missed.
And yet.. part of me wants to be pleased that the Lyttelton audience see so much Katie Mitchell (some of it really good) and then got followed up with a modern wordless European classic. It’s just… What if you saw Attempts and found it a bit limited, and you saw Hour and found that it missed the point.. God, you’d be running for the amiable safety of your Nick Hytner Much Ado or Major Babs, wouldn’t you? And something seems to happen to these theoretically risky productions in the big houses – as if some damage limitation exercise has been wrought, they come out with the rough edges all chamfered clean. Any honesty and openness of their presentation has disappeared.
I don’t think we’d mind them partially failing, if only they didn’t sit there looking so smug as if they thought they’d succeeded. I’m sure it’s to do with our new sales-friendly arts culture; in this age of competition and free market, none of the venues are allowed to admit that any of their shows have been anything less than a success – it’s not just looking for positives, it’s presenting an inane grin to the public, ACE and sponsors. Which is fine if you think the public are morons to be misled by your smile (as the ACE and sponsors will be). But if you give them any credit at all, you just look like you don’t know what you’re doing.
It’s consistently not good enough. Surely. I still want to applaud people for stepping in the right direction. And I know how hard it can be to get it right – goodness knows I don’t manage. So it’s thrilling to have seen, for example, the recent double at the Gate – I Am Falling and Press. Not for what they were as much as for what they tried to be – a really bold reinvention of the venue’s policy. I thought Falling was a lovely little piece of work – it was short, yes, but you could also say it didn’t outstay its welcome – and it unaffectedly did find a common ground between the open artifice of dance and the deliberately apparent artlessness of dialogue. Press was much less overwhelming even though it was technically a more extraordinary performance. I didn’t see any great dramatic coherence to the composition – and the last section with the video camera felt thrown in as a free gift – this was the much less interesting of the two pieces, much more like the circus exhibitionism of the most self-regarding dance.
random up at the Court is the Important Production of the month. But although the subject is closer to home, it’s miles from the urgent frisson you got from debbie tucker green’s previous Sacha Wares collaboration, generations. Nadine Marshall gives a brilliant performance, turning repeatedly on a sixpence to offer a beautifully observed set of roles, and no one puts a foot wrong – it’s tasteful, thoughtful and honest. So why did I nod off a few times? random was so fully inside my expectations of a one-woman dtg show about the pointless death of a teenager (as the publicity made it clear it would be) that it simply couldn’t grab hold. Seven rows behind me a young school group of mainly black kids whooped whenever they recognised a bit of characterisation or a turn of phrase, but they didn’t seem impressed by the narrative either. My feeling is that perhaps the brief (self-imposed or not, I’ve no idea) was too restrictive for dtg to be able to think about how she might hook the audience. This didn’t cement her reputation. She is the most unconventional and poetic playwright of her generation, certainly, but here for a moment the anti-capitalisation started to seem like an affectation.
Prescription may be our greatest enemy – especially when our arts overlords are so keen on good planning and management. Get me a knife-crime play. You can’t just prescribe something and then create it. On a download from his site, Chris Goode does some talking (densely of course – don’t you ever read it back and try to make it easier, Chris?) about ‘liminality’ and his aspirations for what theatre should aim to be. He talks about loads more than this. But of course, like a million writers and directors before him, he wants the event to resonate outside the rooms and the hours it takes place in. But it’s one thing to say”I want this to resonate” and another to actually sit down and make the work. All we can ask for is care and attention to what resonates instead of what looks cool. It doesn’t matter if your source material is Chekhov, a new play or a performance devised from a book of postage stamps – you’re just as likely to make something conventional. A culture of wanting to plan what impact your production is going to have combines badly with a culture of asking people to deliver things in the vein of the their previous work. Artists (and the visual artists do us no favours here) are expected to have a schtick nowand to plough their proven furrow. Shunt’s David Rosenberg is about to open his project at the Lyric, Contains Violence – I’m terrified that it’s just going to be a tired old set of noirish/pulp fiction/voyeuristic cliches with some aggressive ‘attitude’ and an air of the defiantly amateurish. Clips from Shunt shows you might have seen, taken across the road and watched through the windows. We used to toddle down to Shunt cabarets to be surprised (and, be fair, quite frequently disappointed), but never bored. I really hope Rosenberg has kept hold of his ability to pull the rug from under what you’re expecting. Goodness knows all the advice he’s been hearing will have been about providing a satisfying ending.
So we’re surrounded by ‘good’ pieces of theatre – target-hitting, slick, well-produced and performed work: like in what is undeniably an important production of random, not least because the school group had a good time. But the ‘good’ness can really stifle what might really be exciting in it. The Arts Council are scratching their collective heads about what excellence might be; it isn’t this. I’d prefer a time when companies didn’t have to lie to you about how good their work is, so they can have actual dialogue about how good they want it to be – and what they dream of it being.