A year-and-a-bit on, London’s Bridge Theatre has established itself as a significant part of the capital’s landscape. But here’s the thing: has it actually staged anything that good yet?
Well, yes. Just about. Artistic director Nicholas Hytner hasn’t lost his touch with Shakespeare – his production of Julius Caesar was pretty terrific. And Rona Munro’s stage adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton garnered warm reviews.
The original plays, though, have been underwhelming. Richard Bean’s Young Marx was not his best. Barney Norris’ Nightfall was not his best (even he seemed to distance himself from the production on Twitter). Alan Bennett’s Allelujah! was not his best. And Martin McDonagh’s bizarre A Very Very Very Dark Matter has its defenders, but has been condemned as a career low. The Stage said it was “nowhere near as funny or entertaining as anything he’s previously written”.
What is going on? When it launched, journalists were seriously talking the Bridge up as a meaningful rival to Hytner’s old gaff the National Theatre. That idea now sounds fanciful.
First, it’s a simple fact that, unlike the NT, the Bridge has only a single stage, and that stage hosts only one play at a time. That creates a very narrow prism through which it can be perceived, and presumably there are certain playwrights (like Bennett) to whom Hytner can hardly say no, with just that one stage on which to put the work.
Second, I wonder if the new-writing-plus-a-bit-of-Shakespeare programming model was really the best idea for a large new theatre? Apparently Young Marx and Nightfall were produced first because they were the first commissions that were turned in – but were they genuinely ready? Or were they just deemed ready enough for the theatre’s looming opening date? A couple of interesting revivals early on might have bought the new plays more time.
On a connected note, is the lack of a Bridge literary department not a problem? Hytner told me in an interview last summer that at that time he was more or less doing the job himself, with help from Bridge co-founder Nick Starr, creative development director David Sabel (now departed), and Will Mortimer from Hampstead Theatre coming in once a fortnight. He said he didn’t envisage ever commissioning enough playwrights to require a formal department, or the capacity to read unsolicited scripts.
I can absolutely see the logic, and there may come a point very soon when there’s a steady pipeline of mature work available. But it’s kind of nuts that it’s a new-writing theatre and it doesn’t have a literary department – and it’s pretty easy to imagine this to be part of the reason for the slow start.
Is the Bridge in trouble? I sincerely doubt it. Big-name playwrights and big-name actors are still the order of the day. I’m aware of a little discounting towards the end of runs, but nothing too serious. Next year it will be shored up by the return of Lucy Barton, and a lengthy run for a Hytner-directed Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’ve heard rumours that a more prosaic literary policy is in fact being implemented.
Even critically speaking it could be doing far worse: nothing’s had truly toxic reviews, and commissions of the likes of Lucy Prebble and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins are hardly going to be deemed unexciting when they eventually surface.
Nonetheless: the Bridge is developing a reputation for not delivering the goods, and if that’s not insurmountable, it might at least have been avoidable. Perhaps the takeaway for the situation it finds itself in is this: new-writing theatres dispense with literary departments at their peril, regardless of who’s running them.