Mark Shenton: Controversy can bring in punters, but it can also derail a show
Theatre all too often generates headlines only when it acts controversially, or badly.
The daily business of theatrical excellence tends to be confined to the reviews pages, where it is marked by four or five-star reviews. But the kind of excitement that results in a show being written up on the news pages is typically saved for the stars who drop out (for example Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl), forget the occasional line (Lindsay Lohan in Speed-the-Plow) or when they are accused of behaving in an inappropriate manner (Kevin Spacey, belatedly facing numerous allegations relating to his time at the helm of the Old Vic).
Another, repeat theatre story in the news pages is ‘audience member faints’: when a show causes a theatregoer to need to reach for the smelling salts.
A solitary fainting at the first preview of When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other at the National’s Dorfman Theatre by one – apparently elderly – theatregoer was enough for the Times to headline a news story: “Lights go down, crowd passes out at Cate Blanchett play’s orgy of sex and violence.”
I know that the current president of the United States is fond of accusing the mainstream media of “fake news”, but surely here is a prime example: “Crowd passes out” is definitely hyperbole when the story itself cites a single incident.
As Susannah Clapp more soberly noted in her Observer review of the play: “Excitement has been generated by reports that [the play’s] violence made a woman faint. I doubt it: people frequently pass out at the theatre; the swooner may have wanted to absent herself.”
I know the feeling. But the National has, it seems, played a small part in facilitating the controversy, emailing its audiences after the first preview to warn them of sexually and violently explicit content which “some people may find distressing”. It also apologised for the late warning, but said that the play had been “shrouded in secrecy” and it was only now “finding out more about it”.
Another part of the narrative around this play was its exclusivity: the fact that tickets were only made available to the public by ballot, apart from day seats for which queues were reported to begin at 4am. Quite why the mainstream press becomes so obsessed with an event that only a mere fraction of their readership will actually be able to see is another question; but from theatre’s point of view it threatens to reinforce the perceived sense of exclusivity around the art form.
On the one hand, perhaps anything that gets people talking about theatre is to be welcomed – but not necessarily if it’s for the wrong reasons. And all these factors combined to create a level of expectation that the production failed to meet.
As Matt Wolf noted in his review for the New York Times: “Alas, the reality – hardly for the first time in the theatre – proves something less exciting: so much so, in fact, that the advance noise feels like a conscious ploy to generate controversy. Martin Crimp’s play, directed by Katie Mitchell, comes dressed up with modern themes aplenty, but these barely register. It feels like a staged conceit, not an exploration of character.”
Or, as Natasha Tripney noted in her review for The Stage: “This is arduous, opaque stuff and, given the calibre of everyone involved, a bit of a let-down.”
Prospective audiences who were hoping to get a ticket can at least comfort themselves that they’re not missing out on much; but we’ve also more seriously been deprived of seeing Blanchett, one of my absolute favourite contemporary actors, in a show worthy of her talents.
Interestingly, she was originally attached to the stage version of All About Eve that begins performances this week at the Noel Coward; that, too, is selling well, with Gillian Anderson stepping into the role Blanchett was originally going to play.
Given that the director is Ivo van Hove and tickets are hard to come by, can we expect a controversy storm to be manufactured around this production?
I hope instead that the headlines it makes are for how great it is, not how shocking it is, or how difficult it is to get into.
Mark Shenton is associate editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Wednesday and Friday at thestage.co.uk/columns/shenton
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