Tuesday 31 January 2017

The Tortoise and the Hare: my thoughts on the Hare and Billington articles

Firstly, I am a fan of Hare’s work*. I think that’s important to say as he does get a bit of a kicking sometimes. Then again that criticism isn’t wholly unfounded; I found his recent memoirs, for example, equally fascinating and infuriating. But whilst reading his latest comments about European directors such as Ivo Van Hove that he made in an interview with Jeffrey Sweet – and I’m sure he’s as pleased as punch with this controversy, I mean we’re all going to buy his book now, right? – I found there were a lot of question marks and exclamation marks popping up.


Do European theatre directors camp up classic plays? Is there a definition of camp I’m unaware of? I’ve only seen one Van Hove production (A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic) and it was one of the tensest things I’ve seen on a stage, not camp.

Cut them and prune them: Yeah, so Van Hove’s A View from the Bridge was very short in comparison to other productions but cutting plays down to suit contemporary theatre practises can be a good thing, yeah? Many adaptors, and Hare has done a lot of adapting/ translating, do this so is his problem that it’s a director doing it rather than a writer?

Why would a directing style take over state of the nation plays? Lyn Gardner is quite right in listing plays in which ‘the nation’s soul and psyche’ are captured but have also been presented in different forms and styles.Iphigenia in Splott – performed by one woman – was exhilarating in its poetic and sparse language and also dazzling because of its sharp eye on poverty and local cuts in 21st century Britain.

Furthermore, and more pressingly, is that the only thing we write in this country? State of the nation plays? I’ve written dissertations and essays about playwrights who have written major state of the nation plays but I didn’t think that that’s the only theatre there is, or all the theatre that is worth seeing. I imagine this is something that would be cleared up by reading in full what Hare has to say in the book though, so – once again – looking forward to reading it Jeffrey! And I’m not sure State of the Nation plays are disappearing from the repertoire. Look at DC Moore’s new play Common and Rory Mullarkey’s new play Saint George and the Dragon at the National this year and they both sound like they could be commenting on aspects of Britain and our sense of nationhood.

I know next to nothing about European theatre. Bloggers like ‘Postcards from the Gods’ (wonderful blogger!) actually go to Europe and see plays! Imagine that! Me, on the other hand, I could perhaps draw a sketch of a stereotyped and clichéd idea of what I think European theatre is and it would probably be closer to Hare’s views on it than it is to the actual thing. I agree with Sweet, however, when he says we don’t want a load of Van Hove-lites directing everything in his style. Likewise, I don’t want Van Hove monopolising all classic plays either.

So what’s Hare’s problem? I think it’s partly generational and partly to do with the changing (changed?) role of the writer in 21st century theatre practice. Firstly, remember the NT50 celebrations where actors/writers/directors fawned over the best things they’ve seen at the National? Well one of the things than came up (if I remember correctly) was Peter Stein’s production of Gorky’s Summerfolk, a production which came over from Berlin. Stein’s production rewrote 40% of the text through improvisation in rehearsal collaborating with the company and a dramaturg. Hare himself said (in his NT50 interview) that he apparently welcomed those foreign productions at least because they put a perspective on the British theatre at the time. So why then does he now see European directing styles as an infection to the British theatre? Is it the abundance of them or a particular style or trend that he favours against?

The abundance of Van Hove’s work, particularly at the NT recently, might also be displeasing to Hare. He recently (in his Simon Stephens’ Royal Court podcast) praised the Royal Court for being a writers’ theatre and lamenting that the NT isn’t perhaps as led by its new writers as it seems to be led by its directors. Maybe Hare fears that Van Hove et al treats text with irreverence but then again perhaps Hare treats it with too high a reverence. The role of the writer is of course still valued and (I would like to think) crucial in contemporary theatre but they perhaps don’t hole the same sovereignty that they once did.

Which brings me onto Billington. I think it’s a separate debate even though me writing about both writers in the same blog is helping to conflate matters. Billington is surprised by the lack of inclusion of much classic work (apart from by Shakespeare, Kushner and Sondheim) in the National’s new season, saying ‘From its inception, the National has combined the roles of providing a library of world drama and acting as a stimulus to living playwrights’.The term library, I feel, doesn’t help his argument. I don’t want to go to the theatre to appreciate classic plays, still dusty from being dragged off the bookshelf, but instead to experience and engage with old and new plays in a way that I can see them afresh. But Norris has already staged revivals by Churchill, Wilson, Hansberry, Turgenev (via Marber), Farquhar (with dramaturg work by Marber), Ibsen (once again, via Marber – Billington might as well have written about how there’s too much Marber at the NT), Granville Barker, Chekhov, O’Casey, Kane, Brecht, Rattigan, Shaffer, DH Lawrence, Wertenbaker and probably more.

I go to the theatre for classic plays but, at a time of Trump and Brexit, the new plays that try to make sense of the world are of most interest to me.

* Really, Skylight and The Red Barn were two of the best things I’ve ever seen in a cinema/ theatre, both for different reasons. And the plays I’ve read of his make me want to see them, particularly the NT trilogy and Plenty. And each time I try to persuade my girlfriend that he’s a really interesting and entertaining playwright, he goes and says something antagonistic which understandably puts her off.

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