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Theatrical repeats and encores

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Just the other day the Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer confessed in his review of Richard Eyre’s new production of Ghosts at the Almeida, “I trudged to this production with all the enthusiasm of a schoolboy making his way to a double maths lesson on a dank Monday morning.”

And he went on to confess why:

“One of the peculiarities of my job is that you are sometimes required to see the same play twice in close proximity, and it was only last week that I endured Stephen Unwin’s punishingly dour production of Ghosts at the Rose Theatre in Kingston. The idea of a second dose of a work that is grim even by Ibsen’s demanding standards felt almost unendurable.”

But instead he found a five-star production that left him, as he put it, “reeling.” And that’s one of the joys of the job, too: the surprise of having one’s expectations truly confounded.

Yes, theatre critics do have the joy (and sometimes penance) of having to see the same plays again and again: I’ve seen four Macbeths this year already, and have yet another ahead in New York before the end of the year. But each production has brought different textures to this forever raw, visceral work, from the intense Scottishness of James McAvoy’s performance that violently launched Jamie Lloyd’s residency at the Trafalgar Studios and the chilling, thrillingly muddy version that Kenneth Branagh starred in at a deconsecrated church as part of the Manchester International Festival,  to a more traditional staging at Shakespeare’s Globe with Joseph Millson.

Then there was Alan Cumming’s virtually solo account of the play, set in a mental institution, that he took from the National Theatre of Scotland to New York earlier this year where I saw it in a packed and appreciative house, with Ethan Hawke due to star in another Broadway version at the Vivian Beaumont later this month (from October 24).

When I recently interviewed David Walliams about his current role starring as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he commented to me,

It’s very important to encourage young people to come or it will die out. I’m told that a quarter of the people who’ve booked tickets for this have never been to the theatre before! It’s exciting to reach out to a young audience of people who don’t already know the play.” And then he added, looking at me,  “You’re probably on your 20th!” Actually, it was my second this year (after the Globe did it earlier in the summer).

Of course, one of the reasons these plays are done so often – apart from the fact that so many actors want to play their pivotal roles – is that audiences want to see them, too, but don’t get to them all.

But sometimes it isn’t just the obvious plays you get to see again and again. Right now Trevor Nunn is revisiting his stage version of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage at the St James Theatre that he first staged with a different cast at Coventry in 2008; and next month, we’ll have yet another  production of the play when Ivo van Hove brings his stage adaptation for Toneelgroep Amsterdam to the Barbican, and which promises to be totally different again – apparently it invites audiences to intimate onstage spaces in which three sets of actors portray Johan and Marianne at different ages, before simultaneous performances converge.

I actually can’t wait to see that one now. On the other hand, I couldn’t wait to get out of the first two so-called Secret Theatre shows at the Lyric Hammersmith — they’re currently running to November 9, so I won’t give away their titles (as I did for the first of them) on Twitter in case you are still thinking of seeing them and want to maintain the surprise.

But suffice it to say that the two plays are acknowledged classics that I’ve seen repeatedly over the years, and the only surprise was how perversely and poorly they were done. I didn’t need to see either again. But far more egregiously, a first-time audience might never want to see them again, either; I can only say that there’s more to the plays than we saw at Hammersmith, and both will survive them.

I can afford to see bad productions in every sense, as I don’t buy my tickets; other theatregoers may want to exercise more caution.

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