Get our free email newsletter with just one click

The Green Room: What’s more important in theatre – entertaining people or challenging them?

Paul Ritter, Rufus Sewell and Tim Key in Yasmina Reza’s entertaining and thought-provoking play Art at the Old Vic in 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…​​​​​​​​​​

Ros Clifford, 30, is a deputy stage manager. She has worked extensively in London and regional theatre for nine years

Vivian Lee is 38 and has played leading roles at the National, the RSC and the Royal Court, alongside regular TV appearances

Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA-winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

John Pepper is 31 and for the past 10 years has worked as an actor in regional theatres, the National and in radio, television and film

Beryl Phoenix is in her 40s. She has played leading roles at the RSC, worked on new plays, and toured both nationally and internationally


Albert I think we have a unique opportunity to challenge people by entertaining them.

Vivian One does not exclude the other.

Beryl Context is important here, I think.

Ros I think there’s a place for both. And I think it’s important that both exist.

John It’s always nice to strike a balance.

Beryl Balance is the ideal – make people think and question, through laughter and tears. That takes a good writer.

John But, frankly, some paying audiences simply don’t want to be challenged. They honestly just want a nice night at the theatre seeing some froth and enjoying a nice wee tune – and why is there anything wrong with that?

Beryl There’s nothing wrong with it, there are plenty of shows for those audiences. This is about personal choice and I don’t think it should be ‘better’ to do worthy work.

JonI actually got the idea for this column from a hilarious letter Joe Hill-Gibbins posted on Twitter, which he’d received from a disgruntled punter. After complaining about the fact that Richard II had black people and women in it, the letter writer ended by saying: “I go to the theatre to be entertained, not challenged.” Initially my response was to hoot with derision, but then I thought it was worth asking the question – for the reasons John has pointed to.

Richard II review at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London – ‘comes alive with a renewed relevance’

John What I said earlier doesn’t excuse the prats who write letters saying they went to see something challenging and felt challenged, and why can’t they just have a nice night at the theatre, though.

Beryl I mean, dicks are dicks, right? Be they audience, actor, writer or director. Why can’t folk just be nice?

Do we challenge openly, or do we sneak it in under the banner of entertainment?

JonIt’s also worth investigating how that ‘challenge’ manifests: do we challenge openly, or do we sneak it in under the banner of entertainment?

John Very true.

JonMaybe it’s a question of balance, and a 100% fluffy show is as much of a missed opportunity as a show that is 100% people shouting at the audience?

Beryl It takes really clever theatremakers to do this well. Panto can be just entertainment, but good panto can be the best show you see all year.

John A good panto can be absolutely amazing. I still think of a Cinderella where I wept like a child when Cinders got to go to the ball.

Vivian Good anything is everything.

Beryl I like that!

John There is a section of theatregoers who would like to see theatre as it was done when they were young, when it was nice and white and middle class and male – and anything other than that is challenging.

Vivian It says a lot that a punter thinks that going to see an all-white, male-centric Shakespeare is his idea of entertainment. It’s a larger idea of mediocrity and the canon.

Beryl Bigots will expose themselves by these kinds of questions. And this is not a reason to junk colour-blind casting – if folk find that challenging, then they need challenging, and that is what art should do.

John Frankly, fuck that kind of audience. They don’t deserve theatre any more if those are their thoughts.

Vivian But theatre of the past has created that audience.

JonI’ve seen a couple of shows recently that have made me wonder if audiences are maybe less receptive to metaphor or different ways of storytelling than they used to be. Are audiences getting more or less small-c conservative?

Vivian I don’t know. If we talk about theatre being a mirror, then we have to admit theatres’ – and our – responsibility in it. We have created our own mirror too. If the audience can’t imagine a non-white lead with a daughter of a different race, it’s because theatre as an art form has been deeply racist and sexist.

JonAgreed, but ‘challenging’ can – or ought to – go way beyond casting. It’s about non-linear storytelling too, right? And metaphor and political content and crunchy ideas?

Ros I saw a show at the National Theatre a couple of years ago that I think was pretty much made to challenge and make people think. It really shook me to the core and I could barely speak for about three hours afterwards. When I told my mother about it later on, her response was: “I don’t understand why people would go to the theatre to see something like that. It’s about escapism.”

JonThat’s a great story, Ros. It gets to the heart of what we’re talking about. Is it worth challenging an audience that doesn’t want it?

Beryl And how do you dictate who comes anyway?

John A small form when they are booking tickets?

Albert We should send people out into the night with something to talk about and something to remember.

Vivian I think it’s the old uneasy marriage of art and commerce. ‘What do you want to say/express/create?’ and ‘Is there an audience for that?’

Beryl You can’t stop making work that asks uncomfortable questions. Those who don’t want it can go watch something else. Art should challenge.

Vivian Perhaps art is beyond the dictates of the audience. Entertainment is, possibly, led by the audience?

JonArt – that’s the one with the three dudes and the invisible painting, right?

Vivian Ha!

JonI have definitely made that gag before in this column…

Albert As Shakespeare said, art should “hold a mirror up to nature”, and hopefully it’s a funny mirror so it gets a few laughs as people look at themselves.

Beryl But art has been taken away from ‘the people’, and we need re-educating on how to take it back, as practitioners and as audiences.

We need your help…

When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.

The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.

We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.

Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.