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.