[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/57020?ns=guardian&pageName=Review+of+the+decade%3A+Michael+Billington+on+theatre%3AArticle%3A1316213&ch=World+news&c3=Guardian&c4=Theatre%2CPunchdrunk%2CHarold+Pinter%2CDavid+Hare%2CTom+Stoppard+%28Playwright%29%2CMichael+Frayn+%28Playwright%29%2CMusicals+%28Stage%29%2CStage%2CCulture+section&c6=Michael+Billington&c7=09-Dec-08&c8=1316213&c9=Article&c10=&c11=World+news&c13=Reviews+of+the+decade&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FWorld+news%2FTheatre[/img]From Iraq to New Labour to the state of the railways, people turned to plays to find out what was really going on
The defining moment came in May 2000. That was when Peter Boyden, an arts management consultant, published a report making an iron-clad case for increased funding. The Arts Council England picked up the baton, £25m was made available by government, and the results were instantly visible. Regional theatres had their biggest uplift in decades. That, with the emergence of talents like Michael Grandage in Sheffield, Gemma Bodinetz in Liverpool and Rupert Goold in Northampton, meant for once we had a truly national theatre. There have been odd hiccups since: the arts council went doolally in 2008 with a series of arbitrary cuts. But the nub of the noughties was that theatres were able to plan ahead, instead of always being stuck in a backs-to-the-wall crisis.
The other key moment was also financial: the decision by Nicholas Hytner, on taking over the National in 2003, to launch a £10 ticket scheme. For as long as I could remember, theatre-people had agonised over how to make the medium more accessible. Peter Brook, in a Donmar lecture long ago, supplied the answer: cheap tickets. Hytner proved that was true. In the scheme's first year, a staggering 33% said they were paying their first visit to the National. But the gulf between a £10 National ticket and a £50 stall (plus booking fee) in the West End has grown offensively large.
New money and cheap tickets had a liberating effect, particularly in the dramatic re-emergence of political theatre. Back in 2000, David Hare wrote about the importance for dramatists of recognising that "the external universe may be richer and more suggestive than the inside of their own heads". Wherever you looked that dictum bore fruit: in Hare's own work (Stuff Happens, The Permanent Way, Gethsemane, The Power of Yes); in the rediscovery of political satire (Justin Butcher's The Madness of George Dubya, Alistair Beaton's Feelgood); in the slew of investigative plays from the Tricycle theatre; and, not least, in the emergence of a new generation of black and Asian playwrights, including Roy Williams, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Tanika Gupta and, most recently, Alia Bano.
Why, after the supposed death of ideology, was politics top of the agenda? For a whole range of reasons. Indignation about the Iraq war had a galvanising effect: by a nice irony, new money made it possible to give expression to that rage. The rise of verbatim drama meant audiences started looking to the theatre as a source of uncontaminated information. I would argue that, in the noughties, theatre was more adept than any other medium at responding to events â€“ even when some people hated the results, as with Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children at the Royal Court earlier this year.
Politics weren't exclusively the province of the young. Michael Frayn's Democracy brilliantly examined West German power battles. Tom Stoppard's Rock'n'Roll argued that, while the Czechs and Slovaks fought painfully to achieve their freedom, we have allowed ours to slip away. Ronald Harwood's Taking Sides and Collaboration explored the accommodation made by Furtwangler and Strauss with the Nazis to pursue their musical careers. Our senior dramatists, including Alan Bennett with The History Boys, were on top form. The overwhelming sadness was that we lost the best of them all, Harold Pinter. He began the decade with one his feistiest, funniest plays, Celebration. He went on to grapple with cancer and a string of debilitating illnesses, to win the Nobel prize for literature (as Mike Nichols wrote: "What took them so long?") and to give a mesmerising performance in Krapp's Last Tape. Pinter's plays live on, but his death deprived our theatre of its conscience-pricking figurehead.
A couple of years back, Pinter's publisher put to me a daunting question: "Where," he asked, "are the writers under 30 who have made the same impact Harold and John Osborne had by that age?" I was stumped. But, on reflection, I think it may be the wrong question. You can't directly replace Pinter any more than, in acting terms, you could Laurence Olivier. What we have seen is a healthy diversification of writing talent. The old devils, thankfully, are still scribbling, but new voices have emerged from all over the place. Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh have proved English drama's continuing reliance on Ireland. Polly Stenham (That Face, Tusk Tusk), Lucy Prebble (The Sugar Syndrome, Enron) and Laura Wade (Breathing Corpses) have sprung from the English middle class. Jez Butterworth and Mike Bartlett, in different ways, speak for a beleaguered masculinity. If the decade has proved anything, it is that talent is now democratically spread.
Some would argue that the moral is that theatre no longer depends on the solo dramatist; and there is no doubt that groups like Kneehigh, Punchdrunk and Shunt have proved there is a hunger for a form of collective experience. Kneehigh have progressed from being a Cornish collectors' item to popular entertainers, with their multimedia Brief Encounter. Punchdrunk have provocatively merged theatre with art-installation in shows like Faustus and The Masque of the Red Death; I take my hat off to these and other pioneers. At the same time, I think there is a danger in creating a false schism between "text-based" and "visual/physical" theatre. For a start, I can't think of any great theatre that doesn't embrace both. And a theatre that focuses too narrowly on the visceral is doomed to evanescence: few can now recall a troupe like America's The Living Theatre which, in the 60s, was seen as the harbinger of revolution.
But, if there was an appetite for collaborative spectacle, there was also an obsession with stars. At its worst, this led to vulgar casting: who now remembers Martine McCutcheon's Eliza in My Fair Lady, so praised at the time? At the other extreme, it was fascinating to see theatre-trained actors transformed into megastardom by movies and TV; if Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Jude Law and David Tennant can bring young audiences to Shakespeare or Beckett, that's fine. But for me the decade confirmed the durable power of those actors whose first allegiance has been to the theatre: Penelope Wilton; Lindsay Duncan, priceless in Pinter and Polly Stenham; Simon Russell Beale, who has the capacity to make thought visible; and Mark Rylance, who shone in everything from Shakespeare to Boeing, Boeing.
Some things I regret. The decline in audience behaviour: everything from mid-show texting to the scrunch of plastic glasses under foot. The gradual disappearance of genres such as farce and thrillers: just think how much mileage Orton, Stoppard and Frayn got from elegant variations on old forms. But, in general, theatre is in surprisingly vigorous shape. It addresses public concerns; it speaks to the young. Will this continue at a time when all three major political parties are sharpening the axes for public-spending cuts? It can. It must. Go back to Boyden, who argues that standstill funding leads to a 4% decline in artistic activity, whereas even a small increase produces more work and higher attendances. In the end, that's the real lesson of the noughties: that, in the words of Hytner, "subsidy works".
Best production: Michael Boyd's RSC eight-play Shakespeare History Cycle at Stratford's Courtyard and London's Roundhouse. An epic project performed by a world-class ensemble, making spectacular use of theatre's vertical possibilities.
Most startling resurrections: Chichester Festival Theatre and London's Old Vic. Jonathan Church turned a struggling Sussex festival into a source of adventure; actor-manager Kevin Spacey transformed the Old Vic into a powerhouse of energy on and off stage.
Best debuts: Rebecca Hall in Mrs Warren's Profession and Polly Stenham with That Face. The former for a mix of willowy grace and sharp intellect; the latter for her ability to excavate the rage, rancour and incestuous yearnings beneath the surface of middle-class family life.
Liveliest newcomer: the National Theatre of Scotland. Vicky Featherstone and her peripatetic troupe redefined the notion of a national theatre. The productions, including John Tiffany's globe-trotting Black Watch and Be Near Me, were mightily impressive, too.
Most exciting regional theatre: the Royal & Derngate Northampton. First under Rupert Goold, with aggressively daring productions of Othello and Hamlet; now under Laurie Sansom, with a rich Ayckbourn season and a pairing of rare plays by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill.
Worst shows: A Right Royal Farce, a woeful, over-extended joke about the Windsors by Toby Young and Lloyd Evans. Too Close to the Sun, an impossible musical about Ernest Hemingway's suicide. Closer to Heaven, a musical from the Pet Shop Boys.
Most overhyped performance: Madonna in David Williamson's Up For Grabs. She may have filled Wyndham's, but it was dispiriting to discover that Madonna had all the on-stage personality of a paper cup.
Most shaming episode: The enforced closure of Behzti (Dishonour) by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti at Birmingham Rep's The Door in 2004, after violent protests. The writer was forced into hiding, subsequent readings of the play were abandoned, and theatre's freedom of expression suffered a damaging blow.
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Guardian: Review of the decade: Michael Billington on theatre
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