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Mark Shenton: Classic revivals provide a yardstick for greatness and progress

Ian McKellen. Photo: Sarah Dunn Ian McKellen will take the lead role in Chichester's upcoming production of King Lear. Photo: Sarah Dunn
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The ‘classics’ are just that: immortal works of art that repay endless re-examination by different artists for different generations. Or, sometimes, by the same artists again and again.

Ian McKellen, for instance, is about to revisit King Lear in a new production in the studio setting of Chichester’s Minerva Theatre, 10 years after previously doing it for the Royal Shakespeare Company in a mainstage Stratford-upon-Avon production that subsequently toured globally and had a West End season at the New London.

This new production of King Lear follows hard upon the current offering from Shakespeare’s Globe, with Kevin R McNally in the title role, while last November Glenda Jackson returned to the stage after a quarter of a century away, to play the monarch at the Old Vic, and Antony Sher brought his RSC Lear to the Barbican at the same time that Jackson’s was running.

This week, London theatregoers can choose between three separate productions of Hamlet, respectively starring Andrew Scott (at the Harold Pinter Theatre to September 2), Tom Hiddleston (at RADA’s Vanburgh Theatre, September 1-23) and Benet Brandreth (son of Gyles, who is also in the production at the Park Theatre until September 16).

Broadway recently saw two productions of The Glass Menagerie just four years apart: Cherry Jones in 2013, then Sally Field in 2017. Jones also brought her production to the West End earlier this year.

You can understand why the great (and sometimes not so great) actors want to test their mettle with these great parts: it’s a rite of passage, a validation, and a claim for some of that greatness themselves.

And for audiences, too, there is an abiding fascination: we know how the play will end, but we can enjoy the journey each time afresh. There will, naturally, also be members of the audience for whom it really will be their first onstage encounter with the play, and so directors need to think of them, too, before imposing too much of their own interpretation.

Opera, ballet and classical fans are used to revisiting the same pieces again and again, as new directors, choreographers and musicians perform them afresh. But in the theatre there is also a cult of the brand new, rather than the revisited; familiarity may breed content, but for real excitement you want something you’ve never seen before. This is one of the reasons why Hamilton has created such a buzz on Broadway: it’s a musical that reshapes not just the telling of a true historical story, but reshapes the musical itself and jolts it to a new position of cultural relevance.

Yet writers (and audiences) need to know what has come before to understand the present and remake the future. And it’s also why the classics will never die. They’re a constant reminder of who we were, as well as who we are now. We can measure our lives against them.

I felt this very poignantly recently seeing the first preview of Sondheim’s Follies at the National. The show is set in 1971, 30 years after its characters first met, and was originally seen in London in 1987. Now we are exactly the same 30-year distance from that production to the time the characters are apart from their young selves in the show. I now know what those 30 years feel like for myself. And as my senses were flooded with golden-hued memories of that previous production, I had to adjust to new sensations the show now provoked in me. No wonder I watched the latest production through a haze of tears.

The same is true of two more revivals I saw recently. Fiddler on the Roof is one of the great, landmark 1960s Broadway musicals, very specific in its subject matter and setting (the early 20th-century diaspora of Russian Jews) yet utterly timeless and universal. Seeing it in the rural cathedral city of Chichester (where it is running now to September 2), it came alive again as a rich and enriching tapestry of humanity.

And Pippin, a 1972 musical with a score by Stephen Schwartz, has long been a personal obsession of mine ever since I saw a production in my native South Africa around 1978. A show about a royal prince’s attempt to find fulfilment in his life speaks to a profound truth, but so does its bold treatment of depressive illness; and seeing it again in a new production at Manchester’s Hope Mill last week, it moved me more than ever as I’ve come to understand the depressions I used to suffer – and have found my own sense of fulfilment now. And one way, for me, is seeing Pippin and Fiddler on the Roof over the same blissful weekend.

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