Imagine: Theatre of War

The first of Alan Yentob’s new Imagine series brings home the harsh realities of life as a soldier and the long-term impact that service can have on the members of our forces. The programme also demonstrates the effectiveness of theatre as a tool for personal recovery and for education of the audience. The Bravo 22 Company production of The Two Worlds of Charlie F shows us the possibilities of theatre and what can be achieved through determination and commitment. The project highlights many similarities between the “theatre of war” and the theatre; the discipline of rehearsals as they drill their performance, the need for teamwork and courage.

The performances are all the more moving as they are effectively re-enacting the experiences of the performers. Performers such as Dan Shaw who in 2009, aged 18, lost both his legs to an IED while on routine patrol. The eloquence of the soldiers as they recounted their experiences to writer Owen Sheers allowed him to create an evocative script which brings out professional yet authentic performances from the soldiers. Sheers describes how the project made him aware of the “simplicity of war”, and the “ageless” experience of its tragedies. It encapsulates the meaning of war and the levels of destruction it entails. One of the soldiers’ fiancée also describes her shock at the sheer numbers of injured soldiers returning from service.

The programme contains some very moving moments. Cassidy Little, who trained as a dancer before joining the military, admits that as a dance within the production is being choreographed it is the first time within the process that he has missed his foot. We gain an insight into the psychological impact of war as some of the soldiers struggle with drinking, aggression and violence. The soldiers’ circumstances also create unique problems during the creation of the production, as Sheers struggles with non-attendance, inexperience, injuries and medication. Despite their challenges the Bravo 22 Company staged a moving performance of The Two Worlds of Charlie F at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, and the production is now touring and available to view online. It brings the experiences and tragedies of war dramatically to life, and is definitely worth a watch.

Northern Ballet’s Funding Success

As well as producing excellent ballets, Northern Ballet is a great example of how arts organisations can engage with audiences and develop their fundraising. The BBC2 documentary Arts Troubleshooter demonstrated the tough future that Northern Ballet (along with other arts organisations) faces, but also that it is rising to the challenge of funding cuts. The company had planned to reduce the number of dancers from 40 to 30 following a 15% Arts Council cut which left it with a £500,000 shortfall. However it has now announced that it has taken on two more dancers, meaning that the company now consists of 42 dancers, thanks to the Sponsor a Dancer campaign which has attracted both individual and corporate giving.

In May, Northern Ballet’s open day gave the public the opportunity to try dance, observe classes and performances, and attend interesting talks. While the event was under-publicised it was a fascinating insight into the company. Northern Ballet are consistently introducing new and interesting ways to engage with audiences. Over the summer Northern Ballet are opening their rehearsals for Ondine for public viewing, which will surely attract audiences to a ballet that is perhaps less commercial than some. As well as offering opportunities for people to learn about the company and attracting new audiences for its performances, by engaging the public it’s securing its position within the community. If people are interested in Northern Ballet and are familiar with its building and company they are far more likely to donate to ensure its survival.

The government has suggested that philanthropy should make up the deficit left by funding cuts. Northern Ballet’s funding success has demonstrated not only its tenacity in developing its fundraising programme but also the value that the public put on this company. Yet Mark Skipper, chief executive of Northern Ballet, points out that as more and more arts organisations compete for people’s money, relying on fundraising is a risky long-term strategy. Arts and Business, a body aiming to stimulate private investment, suggests that investment by business in the arts is at its lowest level in seven years. Northern Ballet strives to produce quality productions and tour them to provide access to as wide an audience as possible, even when this is not commercially viable. This can only benefit the nation, and philanthropy should complement government subsidy rather than replace it if this is to continue.

Loserville

Loserville is the new musical opening at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, created by Elliot Davis and James Bourne (of Busted and Son of Dork). Set in 1971, it tells the story of computer geek Michael Dork as he sets out to crack communication between computers while falling in love.

The show has an interesting aesthetic, with a metal frame set complemented by boards carried by the ensemble. While distracting at first, this technique was often used effectively to represent everything from a house to a QWERTY keyboard. All the cast gave enthusiastic performances, but while Gareth Gates’ casting has been used to pull in audiences it is Aaron Sidwell as Michael, Eliza Hope Bennett as Holly and Lil’ Chris as Francis whose performances stand out.

The production aims at a wide target audience, from teenage fans of Gareth Gates to those who remember the ‘70s, and the night I went there was a variety of people in the audience. While the musical would be entertaining enough for anyone I think that it will probably be most appreciated by those who were a fan of the Busted/ Son of Dork music of the early noughties. You can certainly tell that the music is by an ex-member of Busted, and roughly half of the songs are taken from the album Welcome to Loserville by Bourne’s band Son of Dork. While cheesy the songs are easy to listen to, and have been growing on me since I saw it (partly due to the fact that I haven’t been able to get them out of my head for the last couple of days).

This is Bourne’s first venture into writing for theatre, accompanied by veteran Davis, and while Loserville is not ground-breaking it has a certain charm about it. I only saw this at a preview, but it definitely has potential.

Still in the Best Possible Taste

The upper class are fraying at the edges; as Grayson Perry this week looks at upper-class taste, he discovers that its major components are age and dishevelment. The reasons for this are manifold. As Lady Bathurst points out when asked to identify which car belonged to the poshest person, “the posher the person, the less they have to prove”. Yet the Cliffords ascribe their shabbiness to inverted snobbery – it’s cool to wear their parents’ and grandparents’ clothes. Furthermore, they have been brought up with ideas of responsibility to their family, their taste an ancestral legacy. Unlike the middle classes of last week’s programme, the upper class seem to be less focussed on what others think of their taste and more concerned with preserving what they’ve inherited.

To counter these demands of inherited taste, Charles Berkley and his young family have moved to a (still quite grand) house on their estate rather than live in the ancestral pile. Here they can implement their own taste, rather than have that of their ancestors forced upon them. More drastically, the 7th Marquess of Bath has rebelled against upper-class taste by covering one wing of his house in his own, quite gaudy, artwork. He describes himself as part of the bohemian set, and Perry also visits Detmar Blow, an art connoisseur who clearly identifies himself as belonging to this group. He “wants the beauty”, and has surrounded himself by art and artists. Yet Perry suggests that this idea of “bohemia” is in itself nostalgic, harking back to a rose-tinted 1920s ideal.

The family at Chavenage House demonstrate that shabby chic can be a necessity rather than a style choice; they ration hot water but it still costs £80,000 a year to run their home. The daughter suggests that in 100 years very few country houses will still contain the same families as they do now. They will perhaps be filled with people like Lisa Maxwell from The Bill, who we see renovating one of these houses. She is making drastic changes to the house, knocking down walls, and seems completely bewildered at the fact that the previous owners didn’t have a telly. While I’m not sure I agree with her idea of attaching a large glass cube to the rear of the building, it seems that increasingly it will be people like Lisa who are owning and renovating these large houses.

Perry meets historian Amanda Vickery, who describes how the eighteenth-century upper class didn’t mind adopting new money into their class to sustain their wealth, and used taste as a direct statement of their money and power. While the Georgian aristocracy had the resources to complete grand redecoration projects, a large part of the modern upper class are struggling just to maintain their houses. It seems that as the upper class preserve the ancient decoration in their houses they are not only trying to honour their ancestors’ taste but also to recapture a little of the aristocracy’s glory years.

West End on Film

The BBC 4 documentary London on Film is a compilation of fascinating archive footage of London spanning 100 years, giving an intriguing insight into London across the eras. The first episode focuses on the West End and features evocative footage alongside that of more mundane scenes. We see Covent Garden when it was still packed with fruit and veg, and an array of beautiful period clothes. There is black and white footage of men cleaning the Underground ventilation shafts, alongside a clip from a time when bin men still collected rubbish by horse and cart. An interview with a market stall trader reveals a supreme confidence in his selling abilities that would rival any modern Apprentice candidate.

There is also an article on the introduction of parking meters and traffic wardens to the West End: “it’s all going to be done courteously, no slanging matches, just say ‘what awful weather we’re having, sir’ and fine him £2”. The archive narration is perhaps more entertaining than the footage itself; while modern voiceovers can grate and seem unnecessary distractions, this older commentary is only improved by the RP delivery. I would find many modern documentaries far more entertaining if they were accompanied by an old-fashioned BBC-style narration.

The documentary moves on to Soho: “life after dark with an enamel gloss and the cracks showing – garish, gay, avaricious and a little sleazy at the edges”. We meet a posh stripper, just back from Morocco with her boyfriend. She is a source of some rather bizarre quotes: “for me [stripping] is just the same as standing on stage and singing the Schubert Lieder like I used to when I was in the convent”. We explore the entertainment of the West End, from clubs to cinemas and theatres. There is a particularly incongruous interview where the brilliance of rapping is discussed by men in suits with cut glass accents.

Clips featuring protests and riots merge together, from charwomen seeking an extra thruppence three farthings, via the Vietnam War and Poll Tax Riots, to football hooliganism; this reflects the effect of the film as a whole in bringing out continuities across the period. While the programme flits from one topic to another it continually demonstrates the timeless qualities of the West End, and of life in general.

Celebrity Casting

Increasingly, it seems that star names are requisite for a sell-out show. I’m not against this per se; often actors are famous because of their stand-out talent, and many have spent years working solidly in relative obscurity, honing their craft, before a break-out role in TV or film catapults them to household-name status. Yet at times you do feel that a celebrity with little experience (and sometimes little talent) has landed a role for the sole benefit of ticket sales, with little consideration of artistic merit.

Sarah Green’s article on celebrity casting in Jesus Christ Superstar demonstrates the debate surrounding this phenomenon. While I can understand people’s frustration at the casting of Chris Moyles as Herod, Michael Grandage’s new season at the Noël Coward Theatre is a brilliant example of star casting that will not only draw crowds but also promises excellent performances. Judi Dench, Jude Law and Daniel Radcliffe (alongside Simon Russell Beale, Sheridan Smith, David Walliams and Ben Wishaw) not only have star appeal but have proven themselves as accomplished performers.

Aside from the obvious draw of being able to see your favourite celebrity in the flesh, familiar faces in a production are reassuring. When people are strapped for cash, they don’t want to take a risk with the £50 they might be shelling out for a ticket. People are drawn to what they know, and as few people are familiar with many playwrights or directors, unless you’re staging Romeo and Juliet or a film/book spin-off it makes commercial sense to try and attract a familiar name for your cast.

If someone I know and like is in a production, whether famous or not, it does encourage me to see it. It’s natural to want to minimise the risk of wasting your money on a production you don’t enjoy, especially if you’re booking tickets before it’s even opened. The reason I see every National Theatre production that I can is that I have never seen a poor performance there; the consistent excellence of the National’s productions gives me the confidence to try new plays which I might otherwise have bypassed (although the amazing Entry Pass scheme with £5 tickets for under-26s also helps!). Just as the National is a guarantor of quality productions, the same can be said for some actors. If David Tennant or Judi Dench is in a production I feel assured that it will be quality; I trust their judgement in accepting a project and their ability to deliver an outstanding performance. Equally, this is why I would always make an effort to see a play directed by Jamie Lloyd or written by Lee Hall.

It is clear that for this to work on a large scale the key is to attract big name actors. Josie Rourke is a talented director and I’m sure that she could have created an amazing production with an unknown cast, yet it’s obvious that much of the box-office success of last year’s Much Ado About Nothing rested on the appeal of David Tennant and Catherine Tate. I would in no way wish to detract from their performances, as both were outstanding. Tennant in particular shone as Benedick and has an extraordinary affinity with the language; he is the most intelligible speaker of Shakespeare I have ever seen and breaks down the barriers to understanding that the language often produces. The rest of the cast, and the production, were excellent. But there’s no doubt that many in the audience had come to see Dr Who and his companion. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this, and it’s an integral part of developing and sustaining audiences, but I did find the mass exodus before the ovations as people rushed for a front-line spot outside the stage door rude.

Finally, big name casting can be a useful tool for an actor who wants to avoid typecasting. Daniel Radcliffe’s appearance in Equus was a savvy career move, breaking the Harry Potter mould and demonstrating his versatility, as well as hopefully encouraging new theatregoers. More recently, Katherine Kelly’s excellent performance in She Stoops to Conquer has demonstrated her theatrical capabilities after a long stint in Coronation Street.

But the biggest benefit of celebrity casting continues to be its potential to attract audiences and increase ticket sales. The large number of £10 tickets available for the Grandage season is a testament to theatre’s desire to widen access and develop audiences.

Frankenstein, and National Theatre Live

Last year I was lucky enough to be able to see both versions of Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein at the National Theatre, with both Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature, and as Frankenstein. Yesterday I took the opportunity to catch Cumberbatch as the Creature again, at a National Theatre Live screening. The production was excellent, with Cumberbatch standing out as the Creature (as he did as Frankenstein). Cumberbatch has carved a niche for himself as the go-to actor for posh and emotionally repressed (Sherlock, David Scott-Fowler in After the Dance, and soon to be Christopher Tietjens in Parade’s End). But as the Creature Cumberbatch shows his versatility and physicality. Cumberbatch commands attention, even though for a substantial part of the first half he doesn’t speak.

Jonny Lee Miller and Naomie Harris give excellent performances but Cumberbatch as the Creature sustains the production. While initially the Creature embodies the joys of living Cumberbatch goes on to capture the increasing despair of a lonely man, abandoned by his creator and rejected by society, his humanity and kindness destroyed by successive confrontations with the world.

At the start the camera was inclined to zoom around and over the stage, but once it settled down the showing was almost as good as the theatre, capturing the atmosphere as closely as possible. As with the showing of She Stoops To Conquer I attended (which featured videos on the play’s costumes as well as an interview with director Jamie Lloyd) the screening featured an interesting video discussing the production.

NTLive is an excellent way to reach out to new audiences, both in the UK and abroad. These screenings are accessible to those not able to reach London and developing new audiences at NTLive can only be beneficial for ticket sales at the National Theatre itself. Recording these performances also preserves them for posterity and allows further showings such as the current screenings of Frankenstein. The screening may also have been beneficial for the two girls I was sitting next to, who were holding hands and hyperventilating at the sheer anticipation of Cumberbatch’s appearance on screen. Who knows how they would have coped with the prospect of seeing him on stage in person?!

Other companies are following the National Theatre’s example, with the Donmar Warehouse’s production of King Lear being broadcast as part of NTLive last year. The Royal Opera House also has a live cinema season. The increasing tendency for organisations to broadcast their live performances can only be a good thing as it broadens access to, and encourages engagement with, audiences.

In the Best Possible Taste – Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry’s new Channel 4 documentary on taste and class, In the Best Possible Taste, is an entertaining and informative look at the impact of class on taste in modern Britain. The programmes look successively at working-class, middle-class and upper-class taste as Perry researches a series of tapestries he is designing, inspired by Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. This week Perry visited the stereotypically middle-class communities of Tunbridge Wells and Kings Hill (a Kent residential community). While he is analytical as he probes into people’s lives to discuss their taste Perry always does so in an affable manner and he deals with both working and middle classes affectionately. As he explains in his Five Minutes With interview he believes that there is no such thing as definitively “good” or “bad” taste, and this comes across in the documentary.

The series is especially interesting to me as it parallels the chapter of my dissertation that I wrote on taste and class in relation to eighteenth-century theatre. I argued that taste was currency in eighteenth-century London; the novelist Henry Fielding reasoned that “as it very highly adorns the present Age, so doth it in a more particular Manner distinguish what we call our great Men”. Status was derived from having taste and the ability to discuss the merits of various art forms. Increasingly “taste” was defined by a narrow group of elites, and while the lower classes may have felt no need to engage with the concept of refined taste acceptance into society’s elite could depend on an ability to engage with these ideas and standards.

Throughout the eighteenth century taste was used as a demarcation of class. The middle class’ less established status led to their rigid enforcement of taste in order to assert their worth, and their ability to fit into elite society. In turn the aristocracy felt the need to affirm their standing by conforming to the ideals of taste, in order to both demonstrate their ability to keep pace with the middle class and to redraw a distinguishing line between themselves and their inferiors. The reformulation of the divide between the classes that was beginning to occur in the eighteenth century is paralleled by the drastic expansion of the middle class in the last quarter of a century, with the number of people describing themselves as middle-class rising from 1/3 to 2/3 of the population.

In the Best Possible Taste suggests that middle-class taste is a reaction against working-class preferences; when asked why a tagine particularly exemplified middle-class taste, one interviewee answered “it’s just different… different from what a working-class person would have”. This particular tagine formed part of the Jamie Oliver kitchenware collection, a range which the ladies of Kings Hill appear to swear by; as one lady explains, it makes it look like she’s “got an eye for tasteful items around my house, except I haven’t because they’ve all come from Jamie”. The group relies on brands to reassure themselves that their taste is accepted, resulting in an identikit housing estate where people are happy to buy show homes fully decorated and furnished in order to ensure that their home meets the neighbours’ high expectations.

The second group that Perry visits live in Tunbridge Wells and relies less on brand identity, instead demonstrating asserting their individuality and “cultural capital” by carefully selecting their own trinkets to illustrate their education and awareness of culture. Similarly, the eighteenth-century middle class strived to achieve a well-rounded cultural identity, as taste became an increasingly prominent means for the middle classes to legitimise the status they drew from their newly-acquired wealth. Yet the Tunbridge Wells group, like their eighteenth-century counterparts, are still influenced by fashion; one lady admitted that “a lot of the time I don’t know whether I did like something before it became fashionable or whether it’s the validation that made me realise I like it”.

One man interviewed suggests that being middle-class is about aspiring to a better life but, as an anthropologist explains to Perry, this leave the self-made middle classes unsure of their place and feeling the need to prove they deserve it. This generates the middle-class angst that leads women to agonise over their kitchen utensils, one mother and her husband to trawl the internet searching for the fromage frais with the lowest sugar content for their toddler, and led the eighteenth-century middles classes to fastidiously construct an identity that conformed to the increasingly prominent concept of good taste. The middle classes have always aspired to and emulated their ideal lifestyle and it’s clear that this tradition is still going strong in Kings Hill and Tunbridge Wells.

Next week’s final instalment of Perry’s documentary delves into the taste of the upper classes and promises to be equally engaging.

Kids Week, and A Night Less Ordinary

Having spent the best part of an hour this morning attempting to navigate the very busy Kids Week booking system, as well as my equally busy diary, I am now looking forward to seeing Les Mis and Singin’ in the Rain with my younger sister this summer. Kids Week (which offers free theatre tickets to children accompanied by adults paying full price, as well as events and activities) is a great example of the continuing interest in engaging a new generation in theatre.

Although some of my friends attend the theatre sporadically, and one of my best friends is as addicted to theatre as I am, there are also lots of young people who don’t consider theatre as something that could be relevant to them. Many are intimidated by the prospect of attending the theatre, which is something I can relate to; even as an avid theatre-goer I was somewhat intimidated by the Royal Opera House’s grand décor and smart-looking clientele when I visited aged 18 to see Romeo and Juliet. But once inside the production was amazing, and if people dared to venture inside a theatre a new world would be opened up to them (also, most theatres are not as posh as the Royal Opera House!). The National Theatre has an inviting atmosphere and is home to a café, bars, and there is always an exhibition or musical performance to enjoy (although it is a bit of a maze). As the National Theatre turns Inside Out this summer its outside festival programme is bringing free and accessible entertainment to the South Bank. The outside venue creates an informal atmosphere and is sure to attract passersby.

As ticket prices continue to rise cost is also a barrier preventing many young (and older) people from attending the theatre. Yet many theatres have schemes offering cheap tickets for under-25s. The National Theatre’s Entry Pass scheme offers £5 tickets for all of its productions and often these are excellent seats. Although I think that this is the most generous scheme, especially considering the number of productions staged each season, there are many other theatres offering cheaper seats to young people, including The Old Vic, The Barbican and the West Yorkshire Playhouse. C145 is a brilliant scheme which not only offers under-18s the chance to see productions for £5 but in doing so also encourages them to attend a wider variety of performances than they might otherwise have done.

As well as these schemes there are also opportunities for everyone to have affordable access to quality productions. The Globe’s standing tickets are only £5, while the National Theatre’s Travelex season offers £12 tickets for many performances. Many West End theatres also sell day tickets which can be an affordable option for those with the time to queue.

A Night Less Ordinary (the Arts Council’s 2009-2011 pilot scheme to encourage theatre attendance among the under-26s by offering free tickets) demonstrates the importance of attracting a younger audience. The evaluation report found that while the majority of tickets were given to young people who said that they would probably not have visited the theatre had it not been for ANLO 92% of participants enjoyed the experience and 88% said they would pay to go again and would recommend theatre to friends and family; this clearly demonstrates the potential audience that young people offer.

Furthermore, participating venues believe that taking part has helped them to engage with young audiences and 41% of venues said the scheme had brought them commercial benefits through tickets sold to those accompanying free ticket holders and extra merchandise sales. The report suggests that ANLO is also partly responsible for the continuing development of the many membership and discount schemes for young people. The high success rate of ANLO demonstrates the importance of these discount schemes in developing and retaining an audience for the future.

Antigone

Yesterday I saw Antigone at the National Theatre, starring Christopher Eccleston and Jodie Whittaker. It’s an excellent production, and the play raises interesting issues surrounding our choices and their consequences. From an arrogant, contemptuous and self-assured king, immovable in his judgements, Eccleston captures Creon’s total defeat and resignation after the death of his son as he acknowledges his culpability. The discovery of his wife’s suicide precipitates a total collapse as he crumbles in front of our eyes. Whittaker was equally engaging as Antigone; her steely determination as she decides to bury her brother and her conviction as after her capture she rails against Creon, certain that these principles are worth dying for.

As always, the articles in the National Theatre’s programme were interesting and informative. Laura Swift identified the central conflict in the play, with competing obligations to family and community, as Antigone and Creon embody private and public loyalties. This reminds me of Thomas Otway’s 1682 Venice Preserv’d, with Belvedira and Jaffeir torn between loyalty to each other, to their beliefs, and to the state. I guess this demonstrates the longevity and timeless relevance of these themes. Swift suggests that in antiquity audiences would have disapproved of Antigone’s actions as a woman, while much of Creon’s ideology would have been readily accepted in Greek society. It’s important to bear this in mind when judging Creon’s actions. As Swift points out, Creon may have gone too far in forbidding Polynices’ burial but the decision was certainly his to make. Swift links this to the differing reactions to the play of a modern audience, compared to the likely thoughts of Sophocles’ contemporaries. A belief in the importance of duty to the state, as well as in the propriety of the subservience of women, would both have contributed to a more sympathetic attitude towards Creon and perhaps a disapproval of Antigone’s actions, even if her motives were admired.

Discussion of what people 2500 years ago might have thought of the play is interesting, but should it affect our viewing? While understanding contemporary societal values and beliefs might reveal the author’s intentions, I think that standing alone the play remains relevant as an exploration of tyranny and statecraft. The play has gained special relevance at certain points in history, for example in reference to Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa. Just as the collective memory of Athens’ last tyranny 70 years earlier made the play politically relevant to contemporary Greeks, modern European events have coloured audiences’ perceptions of the play. Each new audience imposes its own morality and values. What is clear is that human nature doesn’t change; it seems that there has always been and always will be tyrants, just as there will always be those willing to stand against them in defence of what they believe.