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.

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Twelfth Night at the Globe

When I saw Twelfth Night at the National Theatre last year, I didn’t really get it. I understood the plot, and there were some good performances, but it wasn’t funny. The play got laughs, but they sounded half-hearted. To me it seemed like people were laughing just to prove that they knew it was funny, rather than as a genuine response to the rather staid action. I thought maybe Twelfth Night just wasn’t for me; this was Shakespeare at the National, directed by Peter Hall and starring Simon Callow and Rebecca Hall, so it should have been amazing. But recently I thought that I’d give the play another try at the Globe, and I’m glad that I did.

Hall’s production was skilfully played out, but slightly dull; in contrast the Globe’s production really captured the spirit of the play. It featured an outstanding all-male ensemble cast; Samuel Barnett, Liam Brennan, Paul Chahidi, Johnny Flynn, Stephen Fry, James Garnon and Mark Rylance all gave great performances although Rylance as Olivia tended to steal the scene. The decision to have an all-male cast, a replication of the Globe’s production 10 years earlier (which featured many of this cast), gave an extra dimension to the idea of dissemblance and gender. Viola is now a man, dressed as a woman, disguised as a man – as she would have been in Shakespeare’s day.

The dialogue and physical comedy were honed to perfection, really bringing the play to life. The Globe was packed, and the atmosphere really added to the experience. It really demonstrates the importance of a production; last year I was ready to give up on Twelfth Night as a rather dull Shakespeare “comedy” but the Globe’s version has converted me; it’s laugh-out-loud funny and deserves the West End transfer it will receive this Autumn.

Not So Stiff Upper Lip

Having written a chapter of my dissertation on the cult of sensibility and its effects on attitudes to the theatre, watching the first part of Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper Lip – An Emotional History of Britain was rather like having an impromptu revision session. Hislop traces the changing attitude of the English towards their feelings – from the cult of sensibility that emphasised the nobility of emotion to an increasingly reserved ideal of stoicism and refined opinion. These changes affected contemporary tastes for a wide range of entertainments, from theatre to the rise in popularity of pleasure gardens. Hislop visits the excellent Johann Zoffany exhibition at the Royal Academy; Zoffany’s portraits demonstrate the increasing emotional involvement of eighteenth-century portraits.

The cult of sensibility and fine emotion allowed the public to demonstrate their morality and virtue. It was accepted that everybody was capable of emotion, but those higher in society cultivated their feelings, and there was an almost competitive element to the displays of emotion that the elites experienced in response to theatrical performances in a bid to assert their superiority and understanding of the play’s deep sentiment. These displays could be almost pantomimic, with ladies falling into hysterical outbursts that were as much about demonstrating their emotional capacity to others as about any deep personal response to the play.

The cult of sensibility dominated eighteenth-century society while it lasted, but it was fleeting, and it increasingly came to be replaced by the ideal of politeness. While it was still acceptable to show feeling in response to the theatre, moderation and manly composure became predominant. Excessive displays of emotion became more and more associated with femininity and a lack of control. Hislop looks at James Boswell’s diary as an example of a man attempting to balance the holding in of coarser feelings with the letting out of refined opinions. Boswell identified the need to put up a public façade to hide his emotions– yet I would say that sensibility had equally been about creating a public façade.

In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft urges women to stoicism, to fight against the ideas of ‘femininity’ that they have been taught. Women were thought to be enslaved to feeling and not rational – a tendency exacerbated by ‘feminine’ pastimes such as reading novels. As sensibility fell out of fashion emotional displays were increasingly felt to be a feminine weakness.

The move away from sensibility was catalysed by the fear of social breakdown that accompanied the onset of the French Revolution. This was perpetuated by Britain’s imperial expansion and the Industrial Revolution – both of these factors expanded Britain’s ambitions and created a new moral seriousness in the country. Zoffany’s work reflected this change, as he abandoned his old subjects in favour of depictions of the Revolution – his later work is hellish, showing the mob gone wild and the normal order of society turned on its head. Excessive emotion was becoming increasingly linked with radical politics in the public consciousness.

Until now I had never really considered the marked difference that exists between the sensibility of the eighteenth century and the stoicism and reserve of British imperial culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – another area that I studied in detail. Hislop identifies the lasting impacts of the French and Industrial Revolutions as well as British imperialism as creating the beginnings of the idea of the stiff upper lip that has come to define the British. The next episode of Hislop’s documentary promises to explore how the Victorians entrenched the stiff upper lip as a national characteristic.

Treasures of Ancient Rome

Treasures of Ancient Rome is an excellent new BBC4 series examining the changing styles of Roman art and its uses. Roman art is an understudied area, and presenter Alastair Sooke is seeking to debunk the myth that the Romans’ art was unoriginal and uninspiring and to raise the profile of art of this period. The art included in this broad category is varied, with widespread influences and geographical locations.

Sooke’s documentary groups the art into 3 programmes; how the Romans pioneered warts ‘n’ all realism, the artistic legacy of Rome’s emperors, and art during the fall of the Roman Empire. The realistic style of early Roman art gives us a unique insight into how these Romans looked and how they wanted to be perceived – as wise and experienced, including wrinkles and receding hairlines. It was not until the Emperor Augustus that Roman art sought to portray people as charismatic, youthful and handsome.

The second episode focuses on the patronage of emperors and their use of art as a status symbol and as a means of propaganda. We see the wide geographical spread of Roman art and the variety of locations where it was found; Sooke explores the remains of the pleasure palace of Emperor Claudius (now submerged underwater), the cave where Tiberius held wild parties and the Pantheon in Rome. Next week, we will see the art that flourished throughout the Empire in places such as Libya and Egypt. The series really gives a sense of the scale of the Roman Empire and the extent of its influence on the ancient world.

Throughout the series Sooke also watches modern artists recreate art using Roman techniques, giving us a clear idea of the way that this art was made. It is fascinating to see how these ancient pieces of art were formed from marble, bronze, or even egg yolk and pigment. Both the ancient and modern art provide for a visually dynamic and interesting series.

Sooke’s has an obvious passion for the subject and he is always engaging; he’s a natural communicator. As in his 2010 series Modern Masters he has the ability to make everything interesting through his enthusiasm and intelligent presentation. Sooke’s excellent presentation, and a wide and interesting subject matter, make this series thoroughly engaging.

Accused

The second series of the BBC drama Accused has been as successful as the first. It follows those in the dock, taking us back so that we see the unfortunate circumstances that led to their crime. Even though the prologue of Romeo and Juliet tells us that “A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life” it doesn’t stop the play gripping its audience, and similarly Jimmy McGovern’s drama draws you. You find yourself rooting for the defendant in the dock as the events surrounding their crime unfold.

The drama is carried by an excellent cast. Sean Bean as a transvestite in an unlikely relationship sustained his episode almost single-handedly, with support from Stephen Graham as his confused lover. Anne Marie Duff and Olivia Coleman both gave outstanding performances as mothers struggling to deal with the impact of local gang culture. Robert Sheehan nuanced performance as troubled teenager Stephen stood out as he depicted a young man struggling with mental health issues and not finding the support he needs. He was supported by Sheridan Smith as a somewhat sinister nurse who becomes Stephen’s step-mother and John Bishop, better known for comedy, who also gave an emotive performance as Stephen’s father. Anna Maxwell Martin was excellent in the final episode as an overworked prison officer who must deal with the fall-out after a prisoner commits suicide.

Accused excels in creating believable dilemmas, where ordinary people face impossible circumstances. Morality is never black and white, and in Stephen’s story not even the facts of the event are clear. We are left in suspense as to whether his suspicions about his step-mother are delusional or founded in reality. Where Accused really succeeds is in continually posing moral questions that challenge the audience; there is no right way to respond in these situations and the characters are trapped by circumstance and the actions of others. It is certainly one of the most gripping and thought-provoking television dramas of recent years.

Parade’s End

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From its announcement, Parade’s End has inevitably drawn comparisons with ITV’s Downton Abbey. I enjoy Downton, but it’s completely outclassed by Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Ford Maddox Ford’s work. I hadn’t read it before I learnt of the BBC adaptation but, borrowing the books from the university library, I found them deeply engaging as a portrait of the tumultuous state of the aristocracy, and the country, in the early twentieth century.

Downton tends to cover social change with quite inconsequential details such as the addition of a telephone to the house, and Sybil’s involvement in the Suffragette movement seems intended largely to generate drama and familial discord rather than to make any insightful point. While Downton portrays the period in a descriptive way, Ford’s work is a detailed exploration of the decline of the aristocracy, the impact of the First World War and changing social ideals.

Both Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens and Rebecca Hall as his wife Sylvia give excellent performances; these characters could have been distinctly unlikeable in the wrong hands. Cumberbatch was the obvious choice for the conservative, intellectual and emotionally repressed Tietjens, and he certainly delivered in his portrayal of the complex emotions suppressed behind Tietjens’ controlled façade. Hall gives Sylvia, portrayed unsympathetically in the books, enough likeability to prevent us from condemning her outright as she amuses herself at the expense of others.

The BBC drama adopts the fractured structure of the novel, flitting between time and place at the start of the first episode. It certainly demands your attention, but is easier to follow than I feared it might be (perhaps aided by the fact that I have read the book). While the first episode largely sets the (rather complicated) scene, I’m looking forward to the next instalment, which promises an increase in the action and the onset of war.

The Hollow Crown: Richard II

Although I’ve been working long hours at Wimbledon for the last week and therefore haven’t had much time for watching TV,  I managed to find two and a half hours to watch Richard II, the excellent first episode of the BBC’s The Hollow Crown series comprising of televised versions of Shakespeare’s history plays. The production was beautifully shot and constantly engaging, and made excellent use of both stunning scenic shots and of intimate close ups in which the actors commanded attention. The production is full of symbolism, both religious, with references linking Richard and Jesus, and otherwise, for example Richard’s name in the sand being erased by the waves. Incidentally, Ben Wishaw (who plays Richard) would make an excellent Jesus with his long hair, beard and robes.

While this interpretation of Richard II was gripping and entertaining, more prosaically (and equally importantly as someone who was unfamiliar with the play) it was also easy to follow, with all of the performances enhancing the viewers’ understanding of the play. The issue of clarity of meaning and emotion when performing Shakespeare is picked up on in the excellent documentary Shakespeare Uncovered with Derek Jacobi which followed the BBC production.

Jacobi discusses the play with actors (the excellent Jamie Parker and James Garnon) at the Globe as they take on the play. There are also interviews with Richard Gould, who directed the BBC production, and Ben Wishaw. Gould says that he’s thought of Richard II as a “sort of Michael Jackson figure; sort of sexually ambiguous, separate, playful, capricious, diva”, and retrospectively I can see a semblance of Jackson in Ben Wishaw’s portrayal of Richard. There are certainly parallels, with Richard swept up in the pomp, rigmarole and “celebrity” of kingship. The documentary highlights the timeless relevance of the play, citing modern examples, from Gaddafi to Thatcher, of people who have met with Richard’s fate.

All of the BBC’s recent programming centring on Shakespeare has been interesting and informative, but I think that this Shakespeare Uncovered benefitted from accompanying a performance. It’s almost the equivalent to the articles in a theatre programme which give background information and explore the themes of the play, and means that the viewer doesn’t need to have any previous familiarity with the play to get the most out of the documentary. Yet I believe that all of the Shakespeare Unlocked programmes have met their target of making Shakespeare more accessible; a letter this week in the Radio Times is from a lady who has been converted after 56 years of not “getting” Shakespeare by the BBC’s Shakespeare season. As Ben Wishaw states, “I get irritated when you’re made to feel like it’s [Shakespeare’s] something difficult and a bit beyond you. I really hate that. People are so stuffy about it, but it’s really easy”. Wishaw’s Richard II certainly made Shakespeare seem easy, and the production was easily accessible. Programmes such as these open up Shakespeare to a whole new audience; they are the sort of programme that the BBC is best at, and a worthy addition to the Cultural Olympiad. I’m definitely looking forward to the next three instalments of The Hollow Crown.