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Mark Shenton: Classics in distress? Not from where I’m standing

Chukwudi Iwuji and Ruth Wilson in Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre. Photo: Jan Versweyveld
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The role, relevance and respect for the classics in British theatre has been thrown into the spotlight twice in the past few weeks.

Guardian chief theatre critic Michael Billington has accused the National Theatre of “a staggering dereliction of duty”, in what he refers to as “the virtual disappearance of what you might call the classic repertory”, following Rufus Norris’ announcement of his plans for the next year, which includes 12 new plays, half of them by women.

Of course the National usually produces around 20 new productions a year, and if you’re doing 12 new plays, that doesn’t leave much room for other work. But in any case “virtual disappearance” is putting it pretty strongly when there are two high-profile Shakespeares – a Twelfth Night with a female Malvolio (renamed Malvolia) and Macbeth (marking Norris’ first Shakespeare for 25 years, which will star Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff) – plus revivals of two great American modern classics, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (which itself received its original UK premiere at the NT) and Follies.

Nor, of course, does “disappearance” exactly match up with the fact that the NT also has Hedda Gabler in its repertory, and a run of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan has just ended.

But then, from another side of the theatrical creative fence, David Hare has also claimed that we’re “heading in Britain towards an over-aestheticised European theatre. We’ve got all those people called ‘theatremakers’ – God help us, what a word! – coming in and doing director’s theatre, where you camp up classic plays and you cut them and you prune them around.”

Hare’s comment is made in an interview for a new book by playwright and critic Jeffrey Sweet, who asserts: “David is right in the sense that there’s more disrespect for text among European directors. They think that their job is not just to interpret a sense of what’s on the page but to also comment on and reform.” He cites Ivo van Hove as one of the ‘offenders’ of this approach, director of the aforementioned current Hedda Gabler at the NT.

But actually Van Hove blows the dust off these plays as few directors I’ve ever seen do, making them resonate anew and in startling, accessible and powerful new versions. His Hedda Gabler left me reeling with its sense of urgency and immediacy. The play came alive.

So, in different ways, have Robert Icke’s recent production of Mary Stuart (now reportedly West End bound), and other recent Almeida outings such as Uncle Vanya (also directed by Icke) and Rupert Goold’s magnificent Richard III (with Ralph Fiennes, that began with the archaeological dig that found the monarch’s skeleton in Leicester).

Van Hove blows the dust off these plays as few directors I’ve ever seen do, making them resonate anew and in startling, accessible and powerful new versions

As to Billington’s charge that the National is neglecting its duty to the core repertoire, we have many other London and regional theatres also addressing this. Right now there’s Shaw at the Donmar (Saint Joan) and on tour (Headlong’s Pygmalion); a very fine Tennessee Willliams in the West End (The Glass Menagerie); Webster at Shakespeare’s Globe’s Wanamaker (The White Devil); a Shakespeare double bill in the West End (Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing at the Haymarket); Stoppard twice over (Travesties at the Apollo, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead soon to be at the Old Vic); Albee twice over (The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? at the Haymarket and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Pinter); Hamlet coming to the Almeida with Andrew Scott in the title role; Buchner’s Woyzeck ahead at the Old Vic; and musicals such as 42nd Street and Carousel both due in London again soon. And all of that’s without the valuable rediscovery work regularly being done by places such as the Finborough and the Orange Tree.

Far from classics being in crisis, I’d suggest they’re in rude health. They’re also being staged in different and challenging ways that maintain their biggest role: to excite and entertain modern audiences.

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