As Mark Shenton rightly observes in his column this week, Ian McKellen’s 80-stop tour of the UK is a “major statement of intent” for regional theatre in the UK. So is Mark Gatiss appearing in The Madness of George III at Nottingham Playhouse, but for slightly different reasons.
Theatre audiences love stars. This is not new – they always have. Theatre used to make its own, but for some time now stars have been made through their work on TV and in film.
In McKellen’s case, his box office bankability is thanks principally to the international profile he has developed via The Lord of the Rings and X-Men franchises, which followed (and continues to be complemented by) a stellar stage career. In Gatiss’ case, he is known mainly for his work on The League of Gentlemen and Sherlock, but is also no stranger to theatre.
There is a conflict here: TV and film roles are required to build up the profile to be able to draw large theatre audiences, but to be available for TV and film castings, agents will tell actors that they need to be in London. And they must be available – not tied into a UK-wide tour, or miles away at a regional theatre that casting directors (and some critics) won’t travel to.
Showbusiness in the UK is overwhelmingly London-centric. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that situation, I wonder whether NT Live (and its ilk) could provide a partial answer.
It’s notable that the Nottingham Playhouse production of The Madness of George III is being screened via NT Live. I’d presume that this was part of the deal for Gatiss from the get-go – it means greater exposure for him and a greater budget for the production. It means that Nottingham audiences get to see a first-rate performer (whom they have heard of) in the flesh, but also that cinema-going audiences (and casting directors) worldwide can see it.
There has been much talk about the potential damage NT Live could do to regional theatre in the UK, leading some to ask why you would go to your local theatre if you can watch an NT Live screening at your local cinema.
There are plenty of flaws in that argument but, whether or not you agree with it, I do think this production could provide a useful model for other theatres around the UK. It also gives the National Theatre the chance to live up to its name by enabling the very best productions from around the UK to be seen by a wider audience.