The ‘water cooler’ moment – where everyone talks about the same thing the next morning in offices after watching things simultaneously on TV – doesn’t happen too often nowadays in our multi-channel, multi-tasking world. But on Saturday nights, at least, great chunks of the world – or at least my twitter timeline – seem to be watching X-Factor and Strictly Come Dancing together.
And over the weekend I found myself at events both large and small that have had everyone talking about, too. The buzz around Jez Butterworth has, of course, been entirely disproportionate to the number of people who can actually see his latest play The River in the Royal Court’s 85-seater Theatre Upstairs, that opened officially on Friday night. A lot of that buzz has been around the lack of advance ticket sales: not, for once, that they were difficult to shift, but rather that they are impossible to buy: they are only released for sale on the morning of each performance.
That’s added to the burden of expectation around it, of course; you’re going to have to compete for tickets. But if the Royal Court have put the play under additional pressure as a result, not to mention the audiences who want to see it, it was led by the playwright himself: in an interview with The Times, he explained,
The thing is, it’s not sold out. The play that comes in after us, that’s already sold out, completely to Royal Court members. No one else can go to see that play and, having made the decision that it needed to be upstairs, it was like: what can we do to make the tickets available? The Royal Court membership is twice the capacity of a four-week run upstairs. This way you’ve got some chance. Even on the last night this play won’t be sold out.
It’s one way to answer the perennial supply-and-demand problem of boutique events like this. The Donmar are adopting an alternative strategy with their new “Barclays Front Row” scheme, that releases some 40 tickets at £10 for front row seats in the stalls and circle every Monday for the week’s performances a fortnight later.
The Donmar’s executive producer Kate Pakenham told The Stage when the scheme was announced,
We felt that if we wanted to encourage new audiences into the Donmar – which we do – then we had to come up with something that was for this moment. The perception that you can’t get into the Donmar isn’t necessarily a healthy one and we wanted to break that down. It’s nearly one-fifth of our capacity.
But unlike the Royal Court, whose membership base Butterworth referred to as being big enough to sell the theatre out twice over across the four week run so they were entirely excluded, the Donmar is more mindful of its existing, loyal membership base. As Pakenham also said,
It’s always been about finding the right balance – we have a great membership, a loyal audience who are very valuable to us and book far out. We wanted to then be able to offer something to a new audience, who have different booking habits. It’s trying with a small capacity to speak to different audiences. It’s a balancing act and we hope we’ve struck a good one.
From the 90-seater exclusivity of the Butterworth my weekend continued with an early Sunday morning trip to the splendid IMAX at Waterloo for the new Bond – no, not Edward, but James: Skyfall. An American friend of mine refers to it as the Sam Mendes/Judi Dench project, and of course they first met when Mendes directed his first Cherry Orchard in the West End.
But it’s also a striking fact just many of the principal cast are past or present alumni of the Naional Theatre, from Mendes and Dench to Daniel Craig, Rory Kinnear, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney, Ralph Fiennes, Helen McCrory and Nicholas Woodeson. It was also amazing to watch a scene in which all three actors onscreen – Kinnear, Whishaw and Fiennes – have all played Hamlet onstage (National, Old Vic and Almeida respectively); which is followed by a scene in which Dench appears, who has played both Ophelia and Gertrude. In an interview with Rory Kinnear in The Guardian last week, he told of how the actors kept themselves amused on the set:
There’s a lot of sitting around, and there was this very annoying game Judi used to play: she’d say a line from Shakespeare, and I’d have to know the next one. And of course I could never get them.
I wonder if they do the same thing on the sets of Tom Cruise films? (They might do on Mel Gibson ones, though – he’s another actor who has played Hamlet).
As always, though, the debt owed to British theatre by world cinema is huge. And it was a pleasure to share that anecdote about the multiple Hamlets on screen in Skyfall with none other than the arts minister Ed Vaizey just an hour after I saw it, at Sunday lunchtime’s Theatre Awards UK, a wonderful celebration of the ongoing vitality of British regional theatre.
I should briefly declare an interest here: I was part of the judging panel, along with The Stage’s editor Brian Attwood, TMA President Rachel Tackley and marketing expert Jo Hutchinson, for the TMA’s annual parallel Management Awards, that recognise and reward service – both public-facing and behind-the-scenes – at member theatres. Nominations for these are submitted by the theatres themselves; our panel then reviews the detailed submissions and decides the winners, based partly on our own experience and what we’ve read. It’s lovely to be able to reward employees like Graham Sutherland, Head of production at Glasgow’s Citz alongside Erica Whyman, the outgoing chief executive and artistic director of Northern Stage, as Theatre Employee/Managers of the Year.
The main body of Theatre Awards UK nominees and winners, which I don’t vote for, are drawn up in a two-pronged process, with nominations drawn from public panels of theatregoers that are then voted on by a panel of theatre critics. No individual critic could possibly cover the full terrain of eligible productions, so it’s a necessarily imperfect science – but it’s a great way of expanding the potential base of shows considered and getting wider recognition for the achievements of regional theatre.
Finally, talking of recognition: it is not every day that a theatre critic can be said to inspire a production to happen, so I felt a strange burden of duty seeing a new production of Rent at the Cockpit Theatre on Sunday, produced by Interval Productions whose staging of Tim Prottey-Jones’s original musical After the Turn I reviewed earlier this year for The Stage.
In the PR for Rent, they have duly stated:
In February, 2012, Mark Shenton nicknamed Interval Production’s pop-rock Musical After The Turn ‘The British Rent‘, in his review, featured in The Stage. The young creatives at Interval Productions listened, and took that as their cue to revive one of the most popular Broadway Musicals of all time, Rent.
And looking up my original review for After The Turn, in which I commended a production that was “a little rough rather than fully ready,” I realise that the same thing applies to their production of Rent, so it’s quite possibly an aesthetic choice. It’s a show, of course, that was unfinished in the writing – its creator Jonathan Larson died on the eve of its first public performance, so never got to do the polishing that would no doubt have followed seeing it in front of an audience. But as the show has itself become a contemporary classic, it is the audience who now complete the work themselves, bringing our own past encounters with it to enjoy it afresh each time.