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Lyn Gardner: To stay relevant, theatre needs to keep its finger on the pulse

Breach Theatre's It’s True, It’s True, It’s True deals with timely themes of gender and consent. Photo: The Other Richard
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Why this play and why now? I often ask myself this question in the auditorium, while watching the action on stage. I wish more directors and playwrights would ask themselves the same question when conceiving a project, as revivals sometimes feel more embalmed than acted.

On the other hand, there is nothing worse than a play that has been given a concept and modern makeover in a desperate attempt to give something dusty a contemporary edge.

Throwing in a submarine may add visual heft to Antony and Cleopatra – and give it an appealing level of snazz for modern audiences – but the National Theatre’s starry revival directed by Simon Godwin, with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo as the lovers, doesn’t make any claims on this particular play as one for today. It just sets out to tell the story really well, and its strengths lie in that and some fine acting, particularly from Okonedo (who also happens to have a wardrobe to die for).

There is a place for such productions, because there is sweet pleasure in watching a familiar play produced with real care and intelligence. But I reckon nothing tops the excitement of seeing a play, whether old or new, that seems to speak so directly to us that it feels as if the ink is barely dry on the page.

I am so interested in the way some productions seem bang on the money in reflecting our own world back, even if the play is centuries old. Is it the playwright being extraordinarily prescient or nimble adaptation by the director? Or is it the audience responding to what they see through the filter of our own experience of the world in which we live?

Great plays are often slippery and have a changeling quality. In the hands of a good director, they mutate and their meanings transform. Henry V means something very different in Laurence Olivier’s film version, made at the height of the Second World War, than it did in Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre revival in 2003, which went into rehearsal just two days after the US-led invasion of Baghdad.

But even a director can’t control how an audience responds to a play, which changes as the world spins and shifts. Hytner’s production was charged because of events unfolding in the Middle East, but I recall him saying the audience and its reactions transformed the play into something contemporary. Staged in the shadow of a real war – and one that swirled with accusations of illegality, dodgy dossiers and questionable justification – the whole thing became thrillingly charged. But as a result, it was well-nigh impossible to get the audience to thrill to victory at Agincourt.

‘In the hands of a good director, great plays mutate and their meanings transform’

Many plays no longer seem to fit modern sensibilities – from Gigi, which was once seen as charming but now considered by some as a play about grooming, to the issues around The Merchant of Venice. It’s up to a director to find a way to reframe them. I didn’t see Young Frankenstein in the West End, but many, including The Stage’s reviews editor Natasha Tripney, found its attitudes to women and domestic abuse problematic and archaic.

A problem facing theatremakers and playwrights is that work is often programmed far in advance, and pieces are conceived and written a long time before they are staged. We can’t expect playwrights to be crystal ball-gazers, but if theatre does want to retain its relevance then it has to have its finger on the pulse.

One of the reasons I like Edinburgh is that the work often takes on the concerns of the moment, as much of it has been conceived shortly before the August run. Last summer’s fringe offered multiple reflections on gender, consent and race that more established companies and venues have yet to fully embrace.

One of the best of those shows, Breach’s It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, was right on point in Edinburgh; startlingly up to date as it cleverly presented the transcript of a 400-year-old rape trial in which the painter Artemisia Gentileschi confronted her rapist, Agostino Tassi, in court. When it landed at the New Diorama in October, shortly after Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to the US Senate during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearing, it was even more electric and potent.

The show goes out on tour next Autumn, more than a year after it was first seen. It will be fascinating to see if it looks as sharp and relevant as it did when it was first staged and how the production shifts and changes. How will it reflect a world post-#MeToo? Theatre must constantly change with the times.

Read Lyn Gardner’s latest column every Monday

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