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The power of theatre: getting your stage fix on page and screen

Clockwise from top left: La La Land, Save the Last Dance, Tipping the Velvet, Bernie Clifton's Dressing Room, Station Eleven
Clockwise from top left: La La Land, Save the Last Dance, Tipping the Velvet, Bernie Clifton's Dressing Room, Station Eleven

While many are watching streamed shows online, there is also a wealth of films, TV shows and books that explore theatre in all its glorious forms. Amber Massie-Blomfield spoke to professionals from across the sector to compile the ultimate theatre-themed lockdown watching and reading list 

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Actor Antony Sher on...
The Dresser

British drama The Dresser (1983) was directed by Peter Yates, with a screenplay by Ronald Harwood. It explores the relationship between an ageing Shakespearean actor-manager known only as ‘Sir’, played by Albert Finney, and his dresser, Norman (Tom Courtenay), as they tour provincial British theatres during the Second World War.

You can tell that Ronald Harwood experienced it first-hand. He was in [Shakespearean actor-manager] Donald Wolfit’s company as an actor, but he dressed Wolfit as well. It has a totally authentic feel and also an element of fable about it, because the characters are slightly larger than life.

Contrasting these two characters is a brilliant choice: one is the great actor-manager and the other is a nobody, his dresser. He’s endlessly trying to look after Sir: a selfless character that captures our heart completely. You find out so much about how they have learned to depend on each other and have been together so long in this curious relationship.

You get a marvellous portrait of wartime Britain that this company is struggling through on tour. There’s a moment when the company is hurrying to catch the train. The train is starting to leave and Sir bellows: “Stop that train” – and the train stops. It’s the most wonderful way of demonstrating the phenomenal power those old actor-managers had.

Of course, theatre’s not like that any more. Now it’s a calmer, quieter working place. That kind of monster simply wouldn’t be tolerated. But what a joy to see him being as monstrous as he is.

 


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Sean Patrick Thomas and Julia Stiles in Save the Last Dance. Photo: MTV/Paramount Pictures
Sean Patrick Thomas and Julia Stiles in Save the Last Dance. Photo: MTV/Paramount Pictures

Actor and playwright Yolanda Mercy on...
Save the Last Dance

Thomas Carter’s Save the Last Dance (2001) follows young dancer Sarah (Julia Stiles), who loses her love for ballet after her mother is killed in a car crash on her way to support Sarah at an audition. Moving to Chicago to live with her dad, she transfers to a tough inner-city school. Here, she falls in love with Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas), who helps her rediscover her passion for dance by incorporating hip hop into her style.

This was one of the first films that spoke to me. When I was younger, I did a lot of ballet – it wasn’t always cool, and at points I felt very awkward being there. No one else really looked like me. But with Save the Last Dance, everyone at school was trying to learn the choreography.

Like Sarah, I was exposed to other forms of dance. I think that really informs my creative practice now – that idea of getting inspiration from many different places. Sarah goes on a journey with her dance, embracing the contemporary stuff. It’s an evolution. That’s relevant to artists right now: Covid-19 is going to change the way we make work forever. That’s exciting, sometimes terrifying – it’s a paradigm shift.

There is a beautiful moment: Derek wants to take Sarah to the ballet, but she’s really against it. The last time she stepped into that world, her mum died in a car crash and she blamed herself. But they go and she’s sitting there and you can see she loves it. That scene reminds me of the power of theatre: you watch something that makes you smile, that touches your heart, and it makes you feel something magical.

Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton in Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room. Photo: BBC
Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton in Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room. Photo: BBC

Critic Chris Bennion on...
Inside No 9: Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room

This is an episode from BBC Two television show Inside No 9, by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton. Reunited after 30 years, two entertainers prepare to remount their double-act for one last gig. As they rehearse, old tensions re-emerge.

Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room is about a very British theatrical tradition that just wouldn’t fly now. Two men are entertainers: they do a few gags, a few magic tricks and a song-and-dance routine. When I was growing up, 1970s variety acts like that were really passé. But what’s nice about Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room is there is a real love. Shearsmith and Pemberton obviously grew up with these acts too – their comedy is very heavily flavoured by that working men’s club world.

The act that they perform – as old-fashioned as it is – is brilliant, a beautifully executed bit of slapstick comedy. The clockwork element has to be minutely detailed. It harks back to a tradition that still exists, but perhaps gets slightly overlooked, of the rep theatre: people learning on the sharp edge of the industry, going around the country performing night after night. It’s a reminder that British theatre exists within that tradition – and because of that tradition in some ways.


 

Michael Keaton in Birdman. Photo: Searchlight Pictures
Michael Keaton in Birdman. Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Playwright Kieran Hurley on...
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman, directed by Alejandro G Iñárritu in 2015, is a black comedy about faded Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), best known for his portrayal of a superhero called Birdman, and his efforts to bring an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story to the stage.

I love its audacity. This isn’t a film that asks you to engage with it as sincere representation of anything – there is a dude dressed as a superhero bird who appears throughout. It’s playing with theatre and film in a really fun way, as opposed to saying: “Here is a very authentic social-realist representation of the industry” – because who wants to see that? We have a hard time in this industry, but no one wants to see the Ken Loach version.

The film is deeply cynical about the theatre industry. I enjoy its cynicism, and I recognise some of it in me. But at the same time there is an optimism in its weird blemished affection for these obviously broken idiots. The character of Riggan is a self-important asshole. And at the same time you root for him. He’s constantly trying to articulate to people how putting this play on is an artistic calling, and the film recognises that as absurd and egotistical, while at the same time seeing that there is something heroic about his unrelenting passion to make something meaningful happen.

There is a heightened caricature of theatre going on, but it comes from a place of affection. The most obvious trope is the confrontation between him and an influential critic, where he gives this spiel about how she just labels everything. I love that scene so much. He has this total conviction about a search for connection. It’s good, man, that’s why we do it…


All About Eve

Artistic director Emma Rice on...
All About Eve

The 1950 drama, directed by Joseph L Mankiewicz, stars Bette Davis as Margo Channing – an ageing Broadway star who finds her career and relationships threatened when young fan Eve, played by Anne Baxter, manipulates her way into her life. (Image shows Anne Baxter and Bette Davis in All About Eve. Photo: 20th Century Studios)

All About Eve has all the glamour of theatre, the thing that we fall in love with. It’s visually stunning – Bette Davis is a mistress of the screen, and there’s a cameo by Marilyn Monroe, one of her first jobs. It’s an old-school portrayal of theatre. It’s all about the playwright, all about the star. But I bet it’s not a million miles away from many West End productions. I love the nostalgia. 
I had a really inspirational drama teacher who was very glamorous, and for me she was Margo Channing, albeit teaching in a further education college in Nottingham.

All About Eve makes you feel like you might just be able to flounce across life. But, of course, none of the characters does. They all have to get messy. Acting can be seen as a lightweight profession, but it’s not. It’s peopled by heroes. They take their own life experience and they increase it with the imagination of another person’s life experience. Their souls become very rich but sometimes very heavy.

For me, it’s the best capture of the messy but intense relationships we make in theatre, and what I love about it – at the end, these relationships survive. That’s also my experience. There is true love – and true friendship.


Opening Night

Playwright Simon Stephens on...
Opening Night

Opening Night (1977) follows the psychological breakdown of ageing Broadway star Myrtle Gordon, played by Gena Rowlands. Gordon is traumatised after witnessing 
an obsessive teenage fan being struck and killed by a car. During rehearsals for a new play, she believes she’s haunted 
by the younger woman, and her erratic behaviour threatens 
to derail the production. (Image shows John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands in Opening Night. Photo: Faces Distribution)

Writer, director and actor John Cassavetes captures the whole culture surrounding the Broadway star, the stakes, the psychosis. Gena Rowlands – what a magnificent actor. In all of Cassavetes’ films there’s a dangerous vitality in every actor’s performance that’s very rare in cinema. I don’t think you even get it in the British new wave and social naturalists who are interested in improvisation – it just doesn’t feel as dangerous as it feels in Cassavetes.

When people talk about theatricality in cinema, quite often they talk about visual opulence, but for me theatricality is the possibility of something startling happening that no one expected would happen. It’s an interesting time to talk about it. I watched the Schaubühne screening of Enemy of the People the other day. I was excited it was being screened. It’s so striking, though, that what you miss is the people sitting alongside you: the vitality, the sweat and the danger.

But in Opening Night, when Cassavetes films the performance, he doesn’t make it look elegant. It looks messy: rather than flattening it out he scuffs it up, and in that scuffing he captures the unpredictability and mess of the live performance. You get a sense that anything could happen, and he would capture it. That’s innately theatrical.


Station Eleven

Playwright Vinay Patel on...
Station Eleven

Emily St John Mandel’s 2014 novel is about a global pandemic. Set across several timelines, in the present day the action centres on ageing film star Arthur Leander, and his appearance in a production of King Lear at a Toronto theatre. Twenty years later, Kirsten Raymonde is part of a travelling theatre group staging a repertoire of Shakespeare plays in small communities scattered across post-apocalyptic America.

As someone who isn’t really into Shakespeare, Station Eleven made me appreciate the way his plays operate as a kind of universal language. It’s not going: ‘These plays are so amazing’, it’s going: ‘It’s the thing that everyone’s heard about.’

It goes from high art to low art. You have comic books and Shakespeare and the Bible, and it’s showing how all three are meaningful.

The novel presents theatre in two ways. In Toronto, it’s very stratified: here’s the star and here are the underlings. You can see the hierarchy. For the star, theatre is a way of validating himself as an artist.

The travelling theatre group is a lot closer-knit – it’s more like: ‘We have no money but we have a lot of enthusiasm, and we really want to tell a story together.’ This is a love letter to touring theatre. You’re going to all these places that are hostile to you, but still feel like doing this will make you happier. I think that is the good version of theatre. And I like that the good version is on the back of a cart in the post-apocalypse, not in a nice theatre in a big city.


La La Land

Playwright and critic Ava Wong Davies on...
La La Land

Director Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016) charts the romance between aspiring actor Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), as they try to make their way in showbiz. (Image shows Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land. Photo: Lionsgate)

La La Land either pisses you off or you get it and you love it. I very reluctantly get it. The colours are so vivid, they just pop out of the screen. It feels like it’s trying to grasp at some kind of magic. Because Mia’s not getting any roles, she decides to write her own play and put it on. For her, the theatre is a metaphor for taking control. There are no frills. It’s just you on a stage, giving the audience everything – which is nice, but not 
really true.

I don’t think her play is meant to be any good – or it’s not important whether it’s any good. It’s more about the action of doing it. I think that’s the case in a lot of films about theatre – it’s not really about theatre. Theatre is the mechanism.

There is a kind of theatricality to the whole film – the way musicals are staged in this precise way. It obviously harks back to films like Singin’ in the Rain – the composition of the frames. But it doesn’t feel theatrical to me because it is completely without any rough edges.

It’s a confection of a film. It has no bearing on real life – but it’s a nice world to sink into and pretend could be real.


Waiting for Guffman

Video designer Andrzej Goulding on...
Waiting for Guffman

Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman (1996) is a mockumentary about an amateur theatre company staging a play to celebrate the 150th anniversary of their hometown, led by exuberant director Corky St Clair (Guest). The stakes are raised when the company discovers Broadway producer Mort Guffman is planning to attend. (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

Because of the industry I work in, we watch it a few times a year. If you’ve ever done a show, you’ve seen these characters before. Everyone starts off doing regional shows, low-budget, fringe: those characters are all there.

It’s one of those movies you can watch again and again and find new stuff every time. They get a lot of the theatre terminology right and they make fun of it. I love it when they describe a show he’s done before – he put burning paper in the air conditioning to convey a burning building. That’s creative thinking. But obviously health and safety-wise, there’s not a chance you could do that…

Everything is building up to the play at the end. It’s so bad it’s good. It’s a show that has been made by the abilities they have in the town. Almost every character wants to be the best in what they do, so they’re putting everything they possibly can into this one production. I think that’s what’s so nice about it – it’s heart-warming to think that at whatever level you’re doing a show, if you put your best into it, it’s going to end well. And they have a good time too. It goes to show that anyone can make theatre.


The Producers (1967 film)

Actor and Mischief Theatre co-founder Jonathan Sayer on...
The Producers

Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1967) concerns past-his-prime producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) who hatches a financial scam with his accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder). The scam demands they stage the worst musical in Broadway’s history. (Image shows Kenneth Mars, Gene Wilder, Zero Mostel and Lee Meredith in The Producers. Photo: MGM)

This takes the piss out of theatre in a gentle way. It’s about people who fall behind the zeitgeist and how they deal with that. I’ve always found the dreadful decisions that get made when there’s a gun to your head of phenomenal interest. I like the behind-the-scenes stuff, the nuts and bolts of putting the show together. It’s really funny. There’s a joke every other line.

All the scenes where they are trying to get people to be a part of this show are great, because they’re the opposite of the norm – they’re trying to find the worst writer, the worst performer, the most brash choreographer. The material is dreadful, terribly offensive. And it’s committed to with full, old-school Hollywood high kicks and tap-dancing.

Thankfully we’re all much nicer and less crazy in the theatre world. But the absolute make-or-break of it is true to form. Considering it’s a show that’s about trying to commit fraud, the thing it has that I love about theatre – and I dearly miss at the moment – is that whoever you’re working with, you so quickly become a little family. That’s a really special thing.


Putting the stage on the page...

Putting the stage on the page...

When I asked industry professionals about their favourite films featuring theatre, I received a wealth of suggestions, but many were scratching their heads when it came to novels.

Theatre is tricky to pin down on the page. Over the years, I’ve read only a handful of novels that have really captured what’s so special about our art form. Vinay Patel picked my current favourite – Station Eleven – and if I could defy social-distancing rules to shove a copy in the hands of every person in the country, I would. Here are a few others to revisit during lockdown, to keep in touch with theatre in all its messy magic.

Adelle Stripe’s Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile is a fictionalised retelling of the brief, complex life of Andrea Dunbar, and how her talent as a playwright took her from a Bradford council estate to Sloane Square. Retelling Dunbar’s story as a novel is a bold choice, but it gives Stripe freedom to bring her to life with the humour and vigour a more conventional biography surely couldn’t have managed. The book also serves as an indictment of the ways working-class voices have been marginalised in theatre. Reading it, you’re left pondering how much has really changed.

I adored Sarah Waters’ 1998 debut, Tipping the Velvet, the story of oyster girl Nancy who falls in love with male impersonator Kitty, and follows her on to the music hall stage. Complex lesbian protagonists were few and far between when Waters published this, and in her hands theatre has potential as a queer place of slippery identities: a place where social restrictions may loosen.

Mikhail Bulgakov’s Black Snow satirises the author’s early years as a playwright and what goes on behind the scenes. Bulgakov is settling old scores with Constantin Stanislavski, with whom he worked at the Moscow Art Theatre, here, in wickedly funny style. Forced to read An Actor Prepares against your will at drama school? This is the book for you.

Of a different order entirely is Maggie Harcourt’s Theatrical, a young adult novel about budding stage manager Hope, who lands an internship on a major production. While she finds romance, the true love at the heart of this book is for the magic of theatre, which Harcourt captures magnificently.

It would be remiss not to mention Angela Carter, queen of the theatre novel, in particular Wise Children, which gave Emma Rice the name for her post-Shakespeare’s Globe theatre company. It charts the history of showbiz twin sisters Dora and Nora and the theatrical dynasty to which they belong. What Carter does so brilliantly is to treat theatre not just as a setting but as a metaphor. As Rice says: “It’s all about people enacting perfection; Carter was great at what lies beneath the desire for life to be lovely.”

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