New molecules please

Why you should not ‘support’ theatre

“Theatre is like sex,” so said director Sir Richard Eyre in a TV interview that I used to show to drama students.  That statement demonstrated why he was such a good director. In just four words he got the attention of the audience and had them wanting to know more. I paraphrase here, but he then went on to say in both theatre and sex we travel hopefully and most of the time what we experience is adequate without being exceptional, but just now and then the encounter is unexpectedly good and at such times – and this, as far as I can remember, is verbatim – “the molecules of the air seem to change”.

Sometimes we are told we should ‘support the arts’.  This is nonsense. The arts in general, and theatre in particular, are not a local sports team.  We should not patronise them out of some sense of tribal loyalty. The arts are created to be appreciated, not supported.  If they are created well enough, they will attract attention for the right reasons, and this is especially true of theatre.

This is a plea for theatre to take more risks.  It has become safe, staid, even stale. I hear protests – you haven’t seen this!  Or that! Or the other! No, I haven’t. But that’s not my fault. The recently departed theatre and film director Sir Peter Brook said that we should never blame the audience, and he was right.  Make what you do unmissable, and make sure we know about it. 

An expression always impressed upon the drama teams I managed was why bother?  Why should we bother making theatre, and much more importantly why should our audiences bother coming to see it?  We have to make it worthwhile. We have to make them feel they got more than they bargained for – in a good way. And we should seek to make sure they couldn’t get that experience in any other medium.


In the theatre of the 1960s, 70s, & 80s there was always something experimental going on – not just with content but with theatre as an art form.  To a degree it is the story of theatre – changing and evolving down the centuries, but the 20th century brought significant strides as theatre had to side-step the triple threat of cinema, TV and home video. Now with the dominance of online media, it seems that the theatre form has been shocked into marking time, which is never a progressive move.

It was the 1950s that really kick-started a key change on stage as the ‘angry young men’ (and women) switched the agenda and liberated the working classes from silly support roles. Influences from abroad were starting to re-shape the geometry of theatre, changing not just the content but the styles of acting and scenic representation. Those ideas prompted a clean break from the small and big screen verisimilitude that theatre had once monopolised – never completely successfully.  Increasingly absurdist, physical, epic and unapologetically self-referential styles made theatre into a genuinely distinct alternative to filmed and broadcast media. Recently that distinctiveness has faded. The last production I saw that made me champion theatre again was over a decade ago, when War Horse hit the stage. In that production, as in others such as The Lion King and Avenue Q the use of puppetry made extra layers of entertainment by blatantly showing the means of creation.

National Theatre production of War Horse

In the 1980s and 90s I was lucky enough to contribute on a local level to experimental theatre shows – something that was replicated by motivated pioneers in my town and right across the nation and abroad. My memory’s eye can still vividly re-create the Victorian Hansom cab built from a couple of upright chairs, a shroud of costume and some brilliant mime by Chilling Tales Theatre Company at Preston’s Charter Theatre in 1985, as they rattled through their repertoire of comic gothic.

Seeing Theatre de Complicite incorporate narrative choreography into their dialogue at Lancashire Polytechnic (now UCLAN) Arts Centre in February 1985 had a major impact on my own work, while several visits to see the ultra-green Horse and Bamboo productions as they toured village halls with their ‘primitive’ puppetry and prop usage had a similar impact. These kind of creative enterprise are, as far as I can see, severely endangered. Theatre will always survive, but I beg dramaturges everywhere, don’t just make good theatre, make new theatre. Push the boundaries of form and style.

Cirque du Soleil

Seeing Cirque du Soleil in Manchester in 2001 was another revelatory moment. It might seem unfair to compare mainstream theatre to circus, but the point about Cirque du Soleil is not that they are a circus, but that they redefined what circus could be. It was not the excellence of the acrobatics that set them apart but the style in which the whole show was unified by costume, make-up, and movement all grafted seamlessly to the spine of music and light that turned the performance into a living dream unlike any other at that time. Any branch of entertainment can do the equivalent.  No one said that Cirque du Soleil should be supported, on the contrary, they were a company that you really needed to see.

Kneehigh theatre’s reworking of the ancient Greek tragedy The Bacchae in 2004 had a similar effect. I would later marvel at their reinvention of classics from other genre, from the magical realism of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus to Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter. Their production of Cymbeline was the most accessible Shakespeare show that I had ever seen. It reformulated all aspects of the show, including much of the text, and in doing so probably came closer to the original impact of the play than any other contemporary production of it.

A blunted trident

My partner and I were cautious in returning to the theatre after the pandemic.  We have now made three visits. The first was to go back to the place where we had seen Complicite almost forty years previously – the studio theatre in the former St. Peter’s Church on the campus of the University of Central Lancashire, the second visit was at the Grand Theatre in Blackpool and the third in a pub venue called Underground at the Clubhouse, in Buxton. All three were decent productions. None of them were significantly experimental or uniquely theatrical.  They prodded but did not puncture.

For each of these visits there were personal as well as theatrical motivations. During the staging of several hundred shows across half a century, I estimate that well over 90% of the audience came for similar reasons.  People came because they knew someone in, or associated with, the performance.  This principle still applies, though perhaps to a lesser degree, when we go to the theatre in the more general sense. Star billing works on that basis. We are attracted by the fact we ‘know’ or more precisely, know of, someone who is appearing in it. That’s fine, it was always thus, but we should not go to support them, even if they are friends or family. We should go expecting to be entertained, and the entertainers should be educated from a very young age as to the nature of our expectation. If we are to bother to go back, what we see has to be uniquely entertaining in a manner not available by alternative means of production.

Let’s look at each of the shows I recently saw.

Weird Romance

UCLAN Performing Arts and Music Students

Friday 13th May 2022 Matinee

The production was based on a pair of speculative fiction stories The Girl Who was Plugged In by James Tiptree Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon) and Her Pilgrim Soul by Alan Brennert. It was directed by Su Mowat.

We went to this play because one of the performers is a relative of mine (granddaughter of a late cousin). That person’s performance, and many of the others, were more than solid, and no one was less than adequate. It was worth noting, as pointed out by a fellow spectator, that many of the young actors may not have appeared before a live audience in over two years, missing out on some development at key points in their training, nevertheless they came up with the goods. There were one or two moments when something a little special happened, reminding both my wife and myself of that most iconic of TV series Twin Peaks. Overall, though, there was nothing exceptionally theatrical about the show. It would have worked just as well, maybe even better, on screen.

Presenting sci-fi on stage dices with the dangers of too much actual technology being used and hence overshadowing the essential human nature of live theatre, but this production avoided that trap.  It did, however, fall victim to using lighting effects to imprison rather than liberate performers. This meant that certain roles were kept at a distance and confined in their use of space much longer than necessary.  Physically creative solutions can resolve this restriction.

Training productions are tugs of war between creativity and coaching.  The golden rule of production is that the show is there for the audience, but when it is part of a course of training that purity is tainted by the necessity for the performers to gain something more than applause. Each member of the company needs the performance opportunity to gain experience and prove what they can do. That need places the director under additional pressure to cast, to rehearse and to present in certain ways. Consequently, shows that push boundaries or take risks are, in themselves, risky options. However, there is so much more to be gained by experimentation. If those involved are successful, they will not just take part in professional productions, they may ultimately create them. They will be responsible for making us bother to buy tickets.

Dead Lies

Grand Theatre Blackpool

Saturday 21st May 2022 Matinee

We went to this play because it featured one of my former students from a quarter of a century ago. Peter Rae gave a splendidly sinister portrayal. I saw every nuance of his movement and heard every syllable of his speech. Sadly, the same could not be said of all other members of the cast, many of whom were ‘known’ to some spectators as a consequence of their TV appearances.  Some five to ten percent of the dialogue failed to reach row E of the stalls with sufficient power or clarity to be fully comprehendible.

This was very much a production more suited to the small screen than the medium sized stage. It was a conventional political thriller, brought nudge-nudgingly up to date by references to current political peccadilloes. It was pretty standard stuff and staged in a pretty standard style. Such is the demand for this kind of drama that my original mid-week matinee booking had to be ‘rescheduled’ to merge with the one programmed for Saturday afternoon when we sat amid a house that was 80% empty. Clearly the company or the venue management decided that the Wednesday afternoon outing was not financially worth the effort. This was because we the public, on balance, felt exactly the same, and hence did not buy tickets.

There is so much of this kind of material available via the buttons of the remote on the armchair that for many people booking the tickets, paying for the car parking and queuing to use the Victorian plumbing, is far too much bother.

It’s puzzling as to why this kind of show, which was typical of mainstream theatre in the middle of the last century, still gets commercial backing. It is to be presumed that it makes money, but it’s difficult to see that revenue persisting as the streaming generation matures. Its one hope would be if the style of presentation was in itself continuously compelling to watch, and presented in a manner not viable by electronic transmission. Producers may think that puts it at odds with the realism necessary for a political play to make its point.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Bessie at Midnight, Alone

Underground at the Clubhouse, Buxton

Thursday 21st July 2022 Matinee

We went to this play because we fancied combining a day trip to the Peak District with a chance to see a script written by Derek Martin, an associate of mine from 1991 when he directed me as Horatio in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It was one of the finest productions in which I have appeared.

Derek did not direct the Blue Masque Theatre production of his play Bessie at Midnight, Alone. That task was undertaken by Rhonwen McCormack but Derek’s trademark of crossing time eras by smoothing out their differences pushed the play’s timeless themes smoothly onto the laps of our minds.

The play is excellent. Despite the change in sexual politics that have happened since Derek wrote it, the script does not seem dated at all.  The text is perceptive, penetrating, insightful and much wittier than this production exploited. Thematically it is fascinating, and it strikes resonances that are both age-old and utterly contemporary.  It is a single actor show in the which the central character directly addresses the audience whilst relating aspects of her life and contemplating the ramifications of a career in whoredom. This role was undertaken by Janelle Thompson.

Janelle really shone when she was playing the non-eponymous parts. Each character had a distinct vocal identity and a physical persona that was instant and amusing. When inhabiting those roles, I was uplifted, engaged and transported.  In contrast I felt that the central character of Bessie, was missing in action. Janelle clearly has the ability to create stunning characters and it was a shame that she didn’t build Bessie as fundamentally or as adventurously as her punters, friends and family.  Ironically the strength of the other people she portrayed only served to overshadow the title character.

Bessie at Midnight, Alone was the most potentially theatrical of the trio of productions examined here because one person on a small stage provides the opportunity for a physical and vocal inventiveness that audiences devour readily, perhaps because they instinctively know that unembellished talking heads breed boredom. If the performance is too demonstrative, too immediate, too interactive, to really work on the screen, then the play boldly flies the why bother flag for theatre.

Solo shows make exceptional demands on spectator as well as presenter, but they can reconstitute the molecules of air in the theatre.  I still cherish the memories of a student performance depicting Grace Darling from 1996 and another by a French actor who recreated Don Quixote at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1987. Each of those shows had a style of staging that drew attention to the environment that wasn’t there. They continuously created scenery that by a combination of voice and solo choreography ignited the imagination enabling the spectator to actively collaborate with the performer in a deeply satisfying manner.

In those shows I saw the scorched plains of La Mancha, the markets of medieval Spanish towns, the windmills that were also giants that must be charged at, the oars of a rowing boat in a force nine storm off Northumberland, the injured rescued voyagers, the psychological tempest of unwanted fame, the long stone monument speaking to me from the churchyard. In each case it was one performer, an empty stage, some light and some sound. Plus, imaginative acting.

Hence, we arrive back at our initial point.  All three shows we have seen this summer so far were at least adequate, but none of them provided that extra something that we seek.  It is a long time since I saw a truly inventive theatre production.  Does that matter?  Yes.

All three audiences were lacking in numbers.  More shouts go up:

They were matinees!

Other houses were fuller!

No doubt those shouts are right, but If any of the productions had been genuinely inventive I might have failed to get a seat on a sunny Friday in Preston, a windy Saturday in Blackpool, or a damp Thursday in Buxton.

I hope those seats are still there in the decades to come, but if they are, and they are occupied, it will be because theatre makers will have made theatre that theatre-goers can’t help but be bothered to go and see.

Come on producers, directors and dramaturges.  Sharpen up. I won’t support you; but I long to be unable to resist you.

For more thoughts on drama from is it for you to why bother – start here: Drama: What it is and how to do it

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