The problem with audience awards…

On The Culture Show this week Mark Kermode tried to redress the glaring omissions in the Oscar nominations by presenting his own personal awards, the Kermodes, which demonstrated the array of outstanding films that the Academy fails to recognise each year. The Academy Awards may favour certain films, but at least with awards like the Oscars or the Baftas you can hope that not only are the voters fairly knowledgeable about films, they’ve also seen quite a few – and hopefully the ones that they are judging.

Audience awards such as the National Television Awards, and last week’s WhatsOnStage.com Awards, throw up a whole new array of problems. I accept that I can’t complain if these forays into viewer democracy come up with the wrong result. Although I think it’s a travesty that Downton Abbey beat both Sherlock and Doctor Who to Most Popular Drama, or that Colin Morgan (who I do think is a good actor) beat Benedict Cumberbatch and Matt Smith to Most Popular Drama Performance, evidently they are the most popular – at least amongst the demographic that votes for the NTAs. The fact that there are a plethora of awards for programmes that I don’t watch – from daytime TV to soaps – leads me to think that I’m not typical of the average voter. We do need a balance when it comes to awarding recognition; awards voted for by experts are hardly representative of the country’s taste as a whole.

As a regular theatre-goer, I take more of an interest in the WhatsOnStage.com Awards, although again I often disagree with the results – I appreciate that there must be something about Wicked that audiences love, as it’s (to me inexplicably) nearly always ahead of the pack when it comes to audience awards for best musical or West End show. But what annoys me the most about audience awards for theatre is the fact that most voters won’t have seen most of the productions nominated. I go to the theatre more regularly than most, but I’ve seen less than half of the productions nominated. Productions from smaller venues suffer as they struggle to muster enough votes to beat productions that are playing to thousand-strong audiences every night.

Aside from the fact that people haven’t seen most of the productions, the obvious domination of the awards by famous nominees suggests that people really do just vote for what they know. Stephen Fry was excellent in Twelfth Night, and a worthy winner of Best Supporting Actor in a Play, but he didn’t stand so far ahead of his peers that he deserved half of the vote (49.3%) in a strong field. The rest of the nominees’ votes can be marked pretty much according to their fame; from Mark Gatiss (19.7%) to Kyle Soller (5.3%). I can’t judge, because I haven’t seen Long Day’s Journey into Night, but I’m sure Soller would have been an equally worthy winner – and had people known who he was he might have been.

The tendency for audiences to vote for what they know must surely have played a role in deciding the recipient of Best New Musical – how else would Loserville have secured nearly a quarter of the vote, only slightly behind Top Hat and The Bodyguard. And again, I’m sure Sweet Smell of Success and Soho Cinders were hampered by their small venues.

Having said all this, I do think audience awards should have a place alongside traditional awards – and I don’t have any answers on how to solve their problems. They’re inherent to democracy, and replicated in all its forms, right up to Parliamentary elections. This year there was one benefit to the susceptibility of audience to be led by external forces. Presumably thanks to its celluloid reincarnation, Les Mis beat Wicked to win Best West End Show with over a quarter of the vote. But maybe Wicked’s star is just on the wane – it was beaten down into third place by the excellent Matilda the Musical.

55 Days

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At the start of Howard Brenton’s 55 Days at the Hampstead Theatre I wondered if I would be able to pay attention through the play, which at times is quite hard work – one lady in the front row didn’t seem to face that dilemma, sleeping her way through the first half. But as the play continues your perseverance pays off, and the play is both engaging and thought-provoking.

Starting the play in 1648, as the Army purges Parliament of those supporting the King, is an interesting choice, and meant that I felt a lot more sympathetic towards Charles I than I would have done otherwise. We hear from Cromwell and the rebel army of the tyrannical acts that Charles I has committed, driving them to their drastic action, but we don’t see them – and I still ended up feeling slightly sorry for the king.

I found myself feeling equally sympathetic for both Cromwell and Charles I; Brenton highlights the similarities between the two, suggesting that Cromwell was fighting for a future he struggled to imagine, while Charles was fighting for a past that was a fantasy. The play captures the feeling that both men are out of their time; Brenton says that he is ‘drawn to stories which are about the future breaking out too early.’

The play is full of conflicting voices; John Cooke, the prosecution lawyer, is a moderating influence, reminding us of the constitutional validity of Charles’ argument as he refuses to recognise Parliament’s court, despite the usual sympathy for Cromwell’s cause. It is an example of the play’s ability to highlight the complexity of the situation as a new world is created.

I felt that the best moments occurred during the court scenes, with some of Charles’ ‘eerily graceful’ lines lifted by Brenton from a nineteenth-century transcript of the court proceedings, and allowed Mark Gatiss to fully get into his stride. Brenton hopes that focussing on the climax of the struggle means that there is a clear action sequence; ‘people dragging themselves towards a thing that few of them ever dreamt they would do, or, in Cromwell’s case, never wanted to do, at least not until the very last moment’. There is a striking moment when a Parliamentarian goes to kiss Cromwell’s hand and he recoils; we feel that he is wary of the consequences of Parliament’s actions.

The cast is strong, and in the programme Brenton describes what he believes is the power of theatre; an actor on stage ‘says “I am your king”… everyone in the room knows he’s not, then suddenly, more powerful than any camera, the imagination takes over… and he really is’. This is certainly true of Gatiss, who is a real presence on stage, and commands your attention. He is regal from head to toe as he surveys those around him. Douglas Henshall is also excellent as a confused but imposing Cromwell.

Yet despite its virtues this play is certainly not for those without an interest in the history; it is at times dense and carries an overloading of information, but if you can stick with it it is definitely worth it.