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Mark Shenton’s week: The pleasures of two-timing

Paul Ritter, Rufus Sewell and Tim Key in Art at the Old Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Going back for more

“Please sir, can I have some more?”, Oliver Twist famously requests in Oliver!. I’m so greedy I often go back for seconds (and sometimes thirds or even more) for productions I love, as well as those I am less sure of.

As critics, we’re also regularly asked to see the same title again and again. Last year, for instance, I saw three King Lears, and two productions of Sweet Charity (in the case of the latter, less than a week apart in December). But more than that, I’ve also since seen the two separate Sweet Charitys a second time each, too. And given that one was in New York and another was in Manchester, that meant separate trips to each city.

Ballet and opera critics are used to this phenomenon: there are only so many titles in the classic repertoire of either genre, so of necessity they have to revisit the same shows again and again, or there wouldn’t be much to review.

Sarah Crompton, former ballet critic of the Daily Telegraph and now reviewing for the Sunday Times, wrote a column about English National Ballet’s Giselle on January 22, in which she wrote: “My sons have always been baffled by the way I repeatedly go to the same ballet. ‘Guess what Mum’s doing?’, they say with studied insouciance. ‘She’s off to Swan Lake. Again.’ I explain that once ballet takes hold in your heart, you want to see different dancers perform the same role – partly for the impact that makes on the piece and partly to be able to judge their respective qualities.”

Sometimes I have to re-review a production for a cast change or a new tour. But for me it’s often about pleasure more than it is about work. The first time I’m working; the second time is for me. And those tickets to see each of those Sweet Charitys again were bought, not comped, to do so.

Last week I did a number of repeats: on Monday I went to the penultimate performance of Robert Icke’s production of The Red Barn at the National, a chilly play I’d found hard to warm to the first time I’d seen it, though I’d been blown over (as the characters are, almost literally) by Bunny Christie’s phenomenal, cinematic designs. Watching it again from the rear dress circle, seats I hardly ever occupy at the Lyttelton, I saw it from a different perspective and was able to admire it even more. It looked Edward Hopper-esque in its detail, of lives being observed from the outside looking in; and knowing what was going to happen in the play, too, allowed me to focus on those details.

On Wednesday, I caught Matthew Warchus’ new production of Yasmina Reza’s Art at the Old Vic, very much a copy of his original 1996 production I also saw a number of times during its eight-year original run, where a series of rotating casts kept pulling me back. This time around – with Rufus Sewell, Paul Ritter and Tim Key as the trio whose long-time friendship is suddenly challenged by a fall-out over an expensive piece of modernist art one of them has bought – I felt both among old friends myself, but also relished how, more than 20 years since its original outing, it still seemed so fresh and funny.

I also went back to Leeds to see the stage version of Strictly Ballroom again. I had only given it a qualified welcome when I first reviewed it at its December opening at West Yorkshire Playhouse; I loved the dancing, but was less sure about the storytelling and sets. Seeing it again, of course, I was able to enjoy the former again, while accepting the limitations of the latter. There’s still work to be done, clearly (the production has now gone on hiatus ahead of a transfer to Toronto), but the show was a definite crowd-pleaser.

New productions of other classics

I also saw two more classics last week: a rare outing for a 1968 Broadway musical called Promises, Promises that contains the sole score written for a musical by Burt Bacharach and his lyricist partner Hal David; and George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.

I’ve seen Promises, Promises myself in two previous productions: a revival at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre in 2005 (a delightful production that starred Emma Williams, one of my top current leading ladies in musical theatre) and on Broadway in 2010 with Kristin Chenoweth.

Some reviews of the new London production have accused it of sexism in its treatment of its female characters, but, like Sweet Charity, with which it coincidentally shares Neil Simon as a book writer, it is not just a product of its time but also a critique of it; these attitudes did exist. And it shows its characters finding empowerment, too, which is surely no bad thing.

It’s the men who come off as losers, more often than not. A commitment-phobic man in Sweet Charity relinquishes the opportunity of happiness with Charity because of his outmoded ideas about the sanctity of chastity (she probably has a lucky escape from his controlling ways), while the lonely, philandering set of middle-aged middle-managers in Promises, Promises are hardly enriched by the satisfaction of their priapic urges.

Whenever I see a play by Shaw, I’m afraid I can never banish the thought of Captain Dennis in Privates on Parade complaining: “That Bernadette Shaw – she’s such a chatterbox!” But Josie Rourke’s modern-day production of Saint Joan gives it a contemporary urgency and relevance. It fields not just the dynamic Gemma Arterton in the title role but also at least five of my favourite actors – Elliot Levey, Hadley Fraser, Jo Stone-Fewings, Rory Keenan and Niall Buggy around her.  So I’m glad I saw it.

A casting controversy in W11

Notting Hill’s Print Room, as I wrote in my review, “managed to stumble blindly, if not blithely, into the year’s first theatre controversy, and it proves to be the most interesting thing about this production of Howard Barker’s new play, In the Depths of Dead Love”.

The issue revolved around the fact that the play – set, according to the show’s online and print publicity, in “ancient China” and featuring characters who were all assigned East Asian names – was cast entirely with Caucasian actors. The theatre certainly made a ham-fisted attempt to disguise the problem, claiming a universality to the play and calling it “in fact a very ‘English’ play”, that failed to address the issue but added fuel to the fire of indignation of East Asian actors who are denied acting opportunities as it is (none had evidently been invited to audition).

In a piece in The Guardian, Mark Lawson interviewed playwright Howard Barker, and wrote: “People caught up in such fusses often seem battered and harassed but, when I mention the controversy, Barker’s reaction would make a Zen Buddhist seem ruffled: “Yes, I’ve heard about that.” Had he anticipated the hostility? “No. The ‘Chinese’ nature of the play is within the setting, which is entirely artificial, and the naming of the characters. It’s entirely European in its sensibilities. I’ve only very rarely ever set a play in my own culture – there’s always a distancing effect. You have to understand metaphors. The theatre isn’t a place for literalness.”

No, but it is a place for equal opportunities, surely. Lawson notes that Barker said that in the major UK productions of two of his other plays, there hadn’t been complaints when Glenda Jackson or Fiona Shaw took the lead role in Scenes from an Execution from a Venetian actor; or that Greek actors should have been used in The Bite of the Night, a play about the fall of Troy. But that’s nationality, not race; and we’ve moved on from a position where it would be possible for an all-white cast, for instance, to star in Porgy and Bess or The Color Purple, or for Jonathan Pryce to use prosthetics to star in Miss Saigon.

It seems to me that Barker and the Print Room could have avoided the controversy entirely by simply removing the reference to it being set in China and changing the characters’ names. But having set his stall by an act of cultural appropriation, he and his producers needed to honour it appropriately.

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