Friday Briefing: The importance of present-day culture in theatrical storytelling and the value of understudies
A new frontier in the culture wars
Theatre is, first and foremost, a place for storytelling. It used to be a place where there were no limits, only imagination, to what could be put on stage.
Hence Shakespeare's most famous stage direction, "Exit, pursued by a bear" in The Winter's Tale, is a theatrical dare only limited by the creativity of a production's director and designer. Ahead of a 2014 Royal Opera House ballet version of the play, an online piece by the Royal Opera House looked at how this has been represented in different productions: "On the realistic side, Charles Kean's bear in his 1856 production was praised in The Times as ‘a masterpiece of the zoological art’. An early 20th-century production by Harley-Granville Barker and a 1951 staging by Peter Brook were both praised for having convincingly ferocious bears."
Other productions have faced the challenge less literally: "Conceptual versions of the stage direction have included a shadow of a bear seen in a flash of lightning (director Ronald Eyre, 1981), a bear evoked by a screech and a growl (James Lapine, 1989) and, in Greg Doran’s 1999 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the fallen canopy of the Sicilian palace morphed into the shape of a bear."
Four hundred years later, playwright Peter Shaffer issued a similarly challenging stage direction in his 1964 play The Royal Hunt of the Sun, "They cross the Andes." As The Guardian reported, "That line had been one of the reasons the play had been called unstageable by most of London's script readers". But directing the National's first-ever new play, John Dexter was attracted to the challenge - and according to Evening News critic Felix Barker reviewing the result, "Mr. Shaffer has not dodged one blood-stained, gold-strewn mile of the fantastic journey."
Nowadays, there are no limits to what theatre-makers will attempt to represent onstage, whether it be a derby of competing railway trains, represented by actors on roller skates, in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Starlight Express or a stable of horses represented by massive, life-size puppets in War Horse.
But if physical representations are becoming more brilliant than ever, the increasingly fragile sensitivities of what stories can and can't be told in the theatre - and those who can and can't tell them-- is expanding by the week. From the moment David Mamet's Bitter Wheat, now playing at the Garrick, was announced, it was attacked sight unseen by some critics and commentators, as I wrote in my review when it actually opened, "for offering a male perspective of the #MeToo story that was properly the territory, they said, of female writers only."
Now this week's opening of The Hunt at the Almeida, a stage version of a 2012 Danish film Jagten in which a male nursery teacher is falsely accused by a 6-year-old girl of sexual abuse, has prompted more critical concerns. In Time Out, Andzrej Lukowski worried that "In 2019 there is something potentially unhelpful about a drama that feeds into a narrative about men as the victims of false abuse claims."
And in the online Exeunt magazine, Ava Wong Davies went further, saying "I just think that choosing to do a play about a man falsely accused of paedophilia and sexual abuse in our current socio-political climate is a very deliberate choice that’s been made. A non-neutral decision, you might say."
But are they barking up the wrong tree? As Tim Bano wrote in a review for The Stage, "Surely this isn’t the right time to be staging a play about witch-hunts against men? But actually, that’s not what this play is about at all, certainly not in David Farr’s supremely nuanced adaptation. Instead, the focus is on the point at which a civilised community becomes feral. It’s about hypocrisy and masculinity; it’s about the rituals that hold groups of people together, and rend them apart. It doesn’t make for an easy watch. Some scenes are deeply, deeply uncomfortable. But it does make for superb theatre."
It's a point I echoed in my own review for LondonTheatre.co.uk, commenting that "It's a gripping, unsettling evening - not easy to watch, but impossible to look away from." Surely the theatre shouldn't shy away from making uncomfortable.
I've written before of my own misjudged tweet in which I said I was skipping revisiting Kinky Boots because the performer I was specifically going to see it again for was off that night. In that case, I'd already seen the show nine or ten times already, from Broadway and the West End to the launch of the UK national tour, so I didn't need to see the show again. But I can also see how this might have seemed disrespectful to his understudy. Understudies are indeed the backbone of the theatre: actors who ensure that the show can go on when the leads are off.
But a show that sells itself on the celebrity of its star actors is always going to disappoint when they do not appear. A show that lives by its stars could die by their non-appearance.
A flurry of protest inevitably followed. As Mark Hedges, a West End resident director, replied "Ooh Nooo - What you have actually done here Southbank Centre is condone all of those hideous complaints when understudies are on!! Disgraceful."
The theatre subsequently apologised, clarifying: "We're sorry. We were clumsy. Molly Lynch is doing a superb job in the role of Clara and has had great feedback from audiences. We did not mean to infer that Molly's performance would be a reason to swap tickets and just wanted to highlight the wider exchange policy."
But the backlash on social media proves how remarkably easy it is to misjudge a message that was intended to be helpful.