“When was the last time you met a new play that was so smart it made your head spin? Not in years, huh? Well, get ready to reel, New York. Anne Washburn’s downright brilliant “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play” has arrived to leave you dizzy with the scope and dazzle of its ideas”.
That was the 2013 opening paragraph of Ben Brantley’s New York Times review of Mr. Burns at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizon.
In June 2014, The Daily Telegraph’s Tim Walker closed his review of London’s Almeida Theatre production with the lines: “I will say, however, that the show left me feeling profoundly depressed. Theatre is always an opportunity to connect with an audience and never before have I seen the opportunity so wilfully squandered. Experimentation is one thing, but this is a play that can only possibly put people off theatre”.
A similar scenario has been playing out over at the Royal Court Downstairs with Tim Crouch’s Adler and Gibb. In Dominic Cavendish’s Daily Telegraph review of that production, he rounded on Royal Court’s artistic director Vicky Featherstone, raising doubts over her programming judgement. I would suggest that Featherstone and Almeida artistic director Rupert Goold have in fact made two of the boldest programming decisions of the year.
Neither work is going to be to everyone’s taste but then that is to be the case with every art form. However, when it comes to experimentation in theatre, it frequently provokes a far more extreme reaction. In the UK, it’s often banished to studio stages, scratch nights, “alternative” venues, or the Edinburgh Fringe with the description “a good festival show” bizarrely tagged onto it. The fact, therefore, that both these new works are on main-stages should be encouraged. They also appear in UK subsidised houses, where such an opportunity can and should exist.
Mr. Burns and Adler and Gibb both produced on two leading subsidised theatre main-stages is amalgamating audiences and growth of all artistic forms. Observing the UK press reaction to Mr. Burns and Adler and Gibb which is co-commissioned with LA’s Center Group, I cannot but wonder if, performance art and experimentation in 2014 actually stands a greater chance of broader success in the US than the UK.
It surprises me that I am considering this. After all, here is a country still so conservative they could not – in any media – publish the title of Mike Bartlett’s play, Cock. But in the US, there is a performance movement where groups such as The Team, Rude Mechs, Pig Iron, The Wooster Group and The Civilians (who first produced Mr. Burns) have enjoyed long-running success. These companies have succeeded in New York because they have been able to sustain and grow through the fact that Off Broadway often offers longer runs for a successful show than the boxed three to four weeks that any Off-West End theatre can provide. That means with excellent reviews, they can build a diverse, larger audience and profile that therefore better embraces them into the theatregoer’s psyche.
For the record, I did not love either Mr. Burns or Adler and Gibb but I respected them. At the productions I attended audiences stayed behind debating with each other in the foyer about what they had just watched and subsequently across social media. And, the main-stage presence of both these shows crucially affords these theatres, artists and audiences a greater artistic accessibility.