Letters of the week
Venue info must be kept in sight
Providing a place online for theatregoers to share seating experiences and recording my own West End views online for more than a decade, I’m aware of the issues Tim Bottle raises with regards poor sightlines (Stage Talk, November 21).
Some years ago, an architect suggested in The Stage that even simple alterations would cost seats, and thus revenue. Given that economic impracticality, I feel that the next best solutions are information and consideration.
Ticketing websites and sales staff provide factual details on pillars and rails, and sometimes personal knowledge. My own site and book, plus online social forums and imitators, share theatregoers’ opinions. Yet customers are still disappointed. Perhaps the idea that ticket prices, however expensive, are set proportional to view remains not fully understood.
Producers and designers sometimes forget that extending or raising stages and elaborate sets affect sightlines. At the Novello, my readers often feel that grand-circle views deteriorate with every stalls row lost. One for professionals to ponder.
For audiences, nobody can anticipate the local rugby team or inconsiderate leaners in front. Mentioning issues to staff before the curtain rises can improve an evening considerably.
Finally, my site’s mailbag over the years suggests that the duller the show, the worse the seat. Ensuring a great production, perhaps, may be the best and simplest solution.
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The past is not a foreign country
Reading The Stage recently, I was struck by the question, ‘Where are all the big plays?’. To which one might add, ‘Where are the new plays drawing on historical characters and situations, rather than contemporary ones?’. I myself have written numerous plays set in a historical context, and overall they have got nowhere. Perhaps they did not have sufficient intrinsic quality. Nonetheless, it is dispiriting to receive rejections simply stating, “We do not deal with history” or, “We are only interested in contemporary issues” or, even worse, “This is a good play, but unfortunately it is historical”.
The above suggests many questions, the first being: is there not such a thing as thematic timelessness? May not history be a window through which we see ourselves? Arthur Miller called his autobiography Timebends. Lady Blanche in Princess Ida tells us – albeit in a satirical context – that “the present, as we speak, becomes the past. The past repeats itself, and so is the future”. May not past time illuminate and inform the present, while piquantly modifying our attitude towards it? And what, too, of the timelessness of certain core emotions – love, hate, jealousy, etc – and such eternal questions as the purpose, if any, of life and the nature of the human condition?
There are, I think, two aspects here. One is cost. Plays set in a past context dealing with the ‘big issues’ tend to require large casts. This is not inevitable, but it is at least likely. So too – though there is no need to be hyper-realistic – is the need to make a more-than-usual outlay on costumes and stage dressing. Yet Shakespeare’s history plays – not to mention King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra and others – originally managed to make themselves effective without elaborate scenery and with costumes rarely specific to their ostensible period. In a world in which Cleopatra can bid Charmian cut her lace, we are not going to be obsessed about pinpoint accuracy. We are dealing with issues of love, war, and power politics, which a historical context and characters piquantly and poetically illuminate.
The other aspect links with the above. It lies in the misguided belief that historical drama fails to address contemporary issues. Actually, there are many stories that do. Take Helen Duncan, the medium imprisoned in 1944 under the 1735 Witchcraft Act owing to establishment fears of her (apparent) knowledge of war secrets that were still being kept under wraps. There is a minefield here of considerations about the right role of government, of the morality or otherwise of propaganda, of the rights of the individual as opposed to the needs of the state, and indeed of the ongoing debate about an afterlife and the validity, or otherwise, of spiritualist revelation. Or, if this seems too recent to count as ‘historical’, what of the story of the Welsh “fasting girl” of the mid-Victorian period, who became a national celebrity, raising issues of exploitation, media coverage, the nature of childhood, and indeed anorexia and parental responsibility for the young? In each case the past relates to contemporary questions, providing an interesting perspective from which to reassess our own views and attitudes.
Some of the earliest English plays to survive are the so-called chronicle plays. The fact is that history almost always has something to teach those prepared to hear. Nowadays, admittedly, we are less concerned with issues of honour and chivalry within a patriarchal social framework, but the politics of power, ambition, love and war are still timelessly relevant. I am not saying these have been altogether denied a voice. Over the years, there has been a raft of distinguished historical plays. In France, Jean Anouilh wrote dramas about Joan of Arc and Thomas a Becket. Shaw produced a famous Saint Joan. Bennett has delighted us with The Madness of George III. Stoppard wittily and learnedly treats AE Housman and Oscar Wilde in The Invention of Love. But today, unless one is an established box office success, the dice are firmly weighted against history.
It might be argued that theatres give audiences what they want. They are not primarily in the business of educating, enlightening or making us think. I would argue that the latter role can be justified, and I certainly do not believe that historical detail need be so impenetrable as to derail the process. But beyond that, the initial premise is false. The success of history-based works of writers such as Hilary Mantel and Philippa Gregory – not to mention the television series The Tudors – shows there is still an appetite for historical writing. What we need are theatres and directors willing to take on historical subjects that deal with big and timeless issues – plays that use the excitement and colour of the past to tint, as with a dye, our responses to both our individual and our multicultural, social present.
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Great TV show to gladden Hartnell
Amid the plethora of general television viewing comes a little gem of nostalgia, mixed with genuine artistry. Heralding the inception of Doctor Who, An Adventure in Space and Time (BBC2, November 21, 9pm) appeared to harp back to an era of television drama in two rather significant ways. Firstly, the manner of production that brought Doctor Who to our small screens so nicely captured by everyone involved, and secondly, by the sheer quality of writing and performance.
Here was a salute to the days of Armchair Theatre, Play for Today and that very varied, often innovative drama, which was selective yet so often simply very good. It was left to David Bradley to portray the late actor William Hartnell – of whom I have been a long-time fan – who played the Doctor from the very start of the series.
For me, Bradley gave an uncanny and beautifully measured performance. This programme seemingly conjured up that rather elusive suspension of disbelief, insofar as you were hooked from the outset. Written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Terry McDonough, this “moment in time” stood out from the fare fodder like a shining gemstone. We should all raise a glass to everyone involved in the project and hope that, one day, we’ll see something of its like again.
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