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Monthly Archives: March 2010

Theatre counterweights

The English speaking National Theatre of Wales presented its inaugural production  this week, watched not only by its audiences at miners’ clubs   but also by political and cultural custodians and commentators viewing it as an instrument of national culture.   In an interview with Will Gomptez, Dai Smith the Chair of Arts Council Wales described NTW as an essential tool in ‘nation building’  and ‘a natural next step in the process of devolution and an important act of self-expression’.  So no pressure there then for John McGrath and his small team.  With only £1m for an eclectic and ambitious programme NTW has saved on costs through its interactive on line community and print-free promotion, but unlikely to have allocated resources for explaining itself.  A theatre company’s work should speak for itself but the expectations of a national theatre company weigh much more heavily.  How long will it be before the inevtiable public debate about its role, its policy and its relationship with the Welsh speaking National Theatre?  

The National Theatre of Scotland‘s honeymoon lasted four years before it found itself the object of serious attack about its attitude to the legacy of Scottish plays.  Its directors have been accused of not respecting a Scottish canon and heritage  in sustained attacks in opinion columns and letters pages of  newspapers.  While NToS has not responded defensively to the attacks,  it would be wise to accept that, as a national theatre, it should show some leadership in articulating its role and responsibilities and to remind us of where it came from as well as where it is going.    National theatres in other small nations have done so. Ireland’s Abbey Theatre has weathered 100 years of public debate about its artistic choice and political role and now lays out its stall, describing its legacy and history and how that influences the present in  initiating and participating in the national conversation

The roots of the National Theatre of Scotland are in the politics of devolution and the symbiotic relationship between culture and identity, and in the contemporary theatre sector’s response to this.  

There is also a vital legacy of  Scottish plays and the Scottish theatrical traditions from variety,  to the  political and community theatre of John McGrath and 784.  The plays by great Scottish playwrights from Hogg and Lindsay, through Barrie, Lamont Stewart, to the great cannon of work from the last 5o years are all part of the ingredients which the National Theatre of Scotland has to play to create great theatre experiences for today’s audiences. 

NToS neither has obligation to produce the historic work  nor  was it  set up to do this. It has produced Chris Hannan’s Elizabeth Gordon Quinn and is to produced Barrie’s Peter Pan as well as new plays from Scottish writers.  Have they got the balance right?  All theatres are faced with hard choices.  The directors of the company would do well to articulate role and policy in the context of the past as well as the present. 

And then get on with the great, internationally successful, relevant-to-contemporary- Scotland shows.

Cassatt's At the Opera by profzucker.

Research into the  NT live experiment shows just what a success this early stage is. Audiences at  the live streamings in cinemas experience the  ‘live’ experience not just as much as those in the theatre, BUT MORE. And they report even higher levels of emotional engagement than those at the theatre.  My own experience bears this out – you get close to the actors in a way that you can’t in a large theatre. The audience appears to be more diverse, attracting more attenders from lower income brackets at the livestreams than in the theatre, and attracting those for whom attendance at the South Bank would be out of reach.NT live has contributed to the ‘virtual capacity’ of the theatre, with no signs of a cannabilisation of theatre box office income according to the research published by NESTA.

NT live shows how the main stream of our theatres can break through the so-called fourth wall of theatre.

During the last 50 years, theatre makers realised that they could become boxed in by the proscenium arch theatres prevalent in the control- and -command culture of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.  Some began the quest to break the ‘fourth wall’  through creative use of design and directing, so that the actor and audience could engage as directly as possible.  In the 20th century, theatre auditoria which were more intimate were built, from tiny studio theatres like the Traverse to courtyard theatres like the Cottesloe, which took as inspiration the more interactive theatres of Shakespeare’s day, unconstrained by proscenium arches and dress circles.   This escape from the prosc arch has picked up speed in the 21st century, with site specific and interactive work applauded by critics. Even the Theatres Trust trustees have declared prosc arch theatres to be old hat.

Old hat they may be for the avant garde and cutting edge of theatre makers.  But the overall economy of theatre demands that the mainstream of work and audiences meet in the larger theatres, where work on a grand scale can take place and audience can attend in their droves.   And while modern theatre architecture can make light work of the proscenium, like Daniel Libeskind’s Grand Canal Theatre, its still there. And opera glasses may be required if you are at the back of the upper circle.

People like going to the theatre, attendances are up, at least in the West End, and many want to see some of the grand scale work.  Until now, that has meant travelling to the theatre usually in the metropolis,paying a hefty sum and if paying less than the top price,often being too far away from the stage to break through the fourth wall.  The success of NT Live is a game-changing phenomenon.

And thats before 3D is mainstreamed.