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Micheal Coveney: Look to the past to value the present

Gala Gordon (Irina), Mariah Gale (Olga) and Vanessa Kirby (Masha) in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, directed by Benedict Andrews. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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In his recent round of interviews marking his retirement from the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner told Michael Billington, when challenged on why the classic repertory has not been sufficiently refreshed on his watch: “You’d be amazed at the number of planning meetings I’ve chaired where I’ve said, ‘Will no one do The School for Scandal?’”

This extraordinary reply implied there was nothing more to be said and that Hytner’s generation of directors couldn’t give a fig about Sheridan and the British comedy tradition – old hat, old costumes, old English (well, Irish). The responsibility for maintaining what Kenneth Tynan described (in his day as Laurence Olivier’s NT dramaturg) as a library of the great plays of the British and world repertoire was a thing of the past, too.

Certainly there was nothing in Hytner’s successor Rufus Norris’ opening salvo to suggest that he thought it was a problem. And perhaps it isn’t. Directors and adaptors of the classics – from the Greeks to Shakespeare, even Ibsen and Chekhov – are obsessed with pulling the great writers of the past into the scruffy realities of the present. When you see this really, and radically, well done – as in Benedict Andrews’ Young Vic revival of Three Sisters last year, or in Edward Bond’s parallel rewrite of King Lear – the effect is stimulating, exciting and transformative.

But when Christopher Hampton (fluent in French and German) did a new version of Moliere’s Tartuffe for the Royal Shakespeare Company, or Odon von Horvath’s Tales from the Vienna Woods for the NT, you felt the double pleasure of being transported back to the world of the dramatist and the revelation of its contemporary application.

Ian McDiarmid (Shylock) in The Merchant Of Venice, directed by Rupert Goold. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Ian McDiarmid in The Merchant Of Venice, directed by Rupert Goold. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Next month, Simon Stephens – who has in the past done a brilliantly updated version of Buchner’s Woyzeck without any attempt to invoke the original – offers a new version of Von Horvath’s famous 1932 folk play, Kasimir and Karoline, as a 21st century fable of political and social uncertainties in north-west England: Von Horvath in Coronation Street?

Stephens’ play, called The Funfair, opens the new Home venue in Manchester, and will no doubt tick all the appropriate Von Horvath boxes of misdirected love, economic recession and unemployment, but not so that we learn anything necessarily about the original play. This is quite different from, say, Philip Prowse or Sean Mathias directing Noel Coward with a modern, socially subversive sensibility. The words are the author’s, and the dislocation of performance from intended setting a creative intervention.

So, in a theatre world where historical memory is, literally, a thing of the past, theatrical amnesia rife and ignorance worn like a badge of honour even among critics, you’d be entitled to suspect that our access to the classics is seriously under threat. And even when our best directors and playwrights do the Greeks, they fudge the challenge of the Chorus and make, say, Medea, a modern suburban housewife whose properties of divine and barbaric kinship are totally glossed over, (as in Mike Bartlett’s version for Headlong and Ben Power’s for the NT. Both salvaged by great performances by Rachael Stirling and Helen McCrory, although neither rose above the stage in a golden chariot).

Goold’s Shakespeare is invariably, and thoroughly, thought through

When the RSC did a 10-play cycle of Greek plays in 1980, the modernity of the themes of revenge, terrorism and blood lust emerged without any gratuitous updating or underlining. This may turn out to be true, too, of Rupert Goold’s upcoming Greek trilogy at the Almeida – The Oresteia, The Bacchae and Medea, again – though his witty assertion that we need to take the Greeks out of the attic implies a glib policy of shaking up and dusting down. But I’m holding my horses, as Goold is one of the few directors whose reimagined Shakespeare – his slaughterhouse Macbeth, his pyrotechnical Romeo and Juliet, his Merchant of ‘Vegas’ – is invariably, and thoroughly, thought through.

Returning to the National, its Shakespeare has been terrific, not just Hytner’s Iraq war Henry V and Occupy London Timon of Athens, but also Marianne Elliott’s magical All’s Well That Ends Well. And while the wonderful rediscovery of Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance (with Benedict Cumberbatch and Nancy Carroll) highlighted a reluctance to investigate other areas of Victorian and 20th century British drama with great actors, there are signs that Hytner might have discovered a go-to director for the forgotten repertory in Simon Godwin, whose revivals of Eugene O’Neill (Strange Interlude) and George Bernard Shaw (a brilliantly edited ‘full’ version of Man and Superman with Ralph Fiennes) create a flutter of hope.

Elliot Barnes-Worrell (Straker), Ralph Fiennes (Jack Tanner) in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, directed by Simon Godwin. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Elliot Barnes-Worrell and Ralph Fiennes in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, directed by Simon Godwin. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Interestingly, Godwin’s next NT production will be the fiendishly difficult Restoration comedy The Beaux’ Stratagem by George Farquhar, last seen at the NT 45 years ago, directed by William Gaskill, with Maggie Smith as Mrs Sullen. Our great actors do not keep to the stage regularly enough to maintain these traditions in our stylish, literate comedy, which is partly why Hytner couldn’t find anyone to do Sheridan.

But maybe he didn’t look hard enough. There was a small-scale but full-dress revival of the play at the new Park Theatre, in Finsbury Park, two years ago. Talented young director Jessica Swale may have had her kittenish Lady Teazle disappear in the ‘screen scene’ with a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, but this was a glorious presentation – led by Belinda Lang as the justly named Lady Sneerwell – of a play that was once a staple in our theatres all over the country, let alone at the NT; great wit, jokes and characters in a frenzy of gossip and calumny to satisfy the most debauched of today’s trivial Twitterati. What wasn’t there to love?

Another director, Selina Cadell – Mrs Tishell in Martin Clunes’ Doc Martin TV series, but an actor of true pedigree and an admired drama school teacher – directed Sheridan’s other great classic, The Rivals, in an acclaimed production at the tiny Arcola last year, with Gemma Jones as Mrs Malaprop. It was last done at the NT in 1980, which would not really matter if it was seen regularly around the reps. But it isn’t. Cadell said at the time “I do believe an 18th century comedy can be fresh, sexy and relevant for a modern audience.”

Even the Royal Court at its most radical never subscribed to this view

If you don’t think she’s right, the chances are that you are currently working in our subsidised theatre right now. Even the Royal Court at its most radical, 50 years ago, never subscribed to this view. Nor did anyone at the National, RSC or Royal Court believe that classics had to be ‘made our own’ or reduced and rewritten to fit modern comprehension. This change has been an accelerating process over the past 10 years, and it’s placing our contact with yesterday’s theatre – in which context, you could argue, the modern theatre can only make real sense – under threat of extinction.

Gregory Doran at the RSC and Dominic Dromgoole at the Globe have started to recycle some of the disappearing masterpieces of the Jacobethan repertoire, and more strength to their elbows. New work and new writing has plenty of places to go these days. We need a more concerted effort to explore the serious classic repertory not only at the National – come on, Rufus, hurry up Simon – but elsewhere, for a drip down effect to take place around the country, where revivals of The White Devil were once commonplace in weekly rep.

What an opportunity this might prove for the incoming artistic director of the Old Vic, Matthew Warchus. He’s already announced Ralph Fiennes as Ibsen’s Master Builder in his first season. Let’s have some lesser known glories with great actors, too, please. And let’s do the updating ourselves as we go back in time and reach out to the past in order the better so as to better understand our present.

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