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.

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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.

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.