It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: I’m In an Ill Humour

Dave Sikula is bitching about British Theatre.

The misspelling above is intentional and the smallest of protests against what I see as a creeping Anglophilia in the theatre and, well, in general.

My wife and I saw the broadcast of the Menier Chocolate Factory production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s “Merrily We Roll Along” tonight, and my dislike of the show and the production aside, it reminded me of something I wanted to discuss after seeing the broadcast of the National Theatre’s production of “Othello” last week; namely, why the hell are the only productions seen in this format direct from London? *

Now, to make things clear from the start, I have nothing against the RSC, the National Theatre, the Chocolate Factory, or any other production company or entity (Okay; there are some companies who have burned me often enough that I’ll steer clear of them, but in general, I wish everyone all the best). I mean, I’ve seen their productions in person on numerous occasions and have obviously paid good (American) money to see the broadcasts. Some of them (John Lithgow in “The Magistrate;” “All’s Well That Ends Well”) I’ve enjoyed immensely; some of them were just dull (Derek Jacobi in “Cyrano” and “Much Ado About Nothing”); and some of them were just puzzling (the recent “Othello”). That said, anything that brings theatre into the consciousness of the mass public is to be welcomed.

But why is it always the Brits? What is it about that accent that turns otherwise-sensible Americans weak at the knees? I was going to say “discerning Americans,” but that would mean leaving out New York Times critic Ben Brantley, who seemingly spends as much time in the West End as he does in Times Square. This self-congratulatory article deals with it. (London’s “theatre scene … is the best in the world”? Yeah, it doesn’t get much better than “Grease 2 in Concert” or “The Mousetrap.”) But now I’m just getting petty. My point is, though, other than London and Broadway, Mr. Brantley doesn’t seem to think any other theatre is worth his time; nothing in Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, or even San Francisco seems worthy of his notice.

I found the production of “Merrily” pretty dull (an opinion in which I seem to be in the minority), but that’s not the point. If the exact same production had been mounted at, say, the St. Louis Muny or the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, only Sondheim buffs would have heard of it, and it certainly wouldn’t have been shown in American cinemas.

Now, I realize a good portion of this lack of American product is due to commercial considerations. Producers on Broadway are trying to sell tickets and make a profit. Road producers (I’m lookin’ at you, SHN!) probably think it would cramp their ticket sales. (Though it seems to me like exposure would increase, rather than diminish, audiences’ interest in seeing live shows.)

I wouldn’t expect to see “The Book of Mormon” or “The Lion King” at my local movie house (although that didn’t seem to be a consideration when the National’s “One Man, Two Guvnors” or “War Horse” were screened in advance of their runs on Broadway. For that matter, the films of “Les Mis” and “Phantom” didn’t seem to daunt their popularity as live attractions). But that doesn’t explain why we don’t see productions from seeming “non-profits” as the Roundabout, Manhattan Theatre Club, Lincoln Center Theater, or Playwright’s Horizons. Hell, national exposure might actually help these companies’ revenue stream. And those are just companies in New York. That barely scratches the surface of what’s being done in the rest of the country.

As a reader of American Theatre, I’m exposed on a monthly basis to shows I’ll never see in person. I’m not saying that every production across America needs broadcasting, but surely Steppenwolf’s production of Nina Raines’s “Tribes” or the Guthrie’s “Uncle Vanya” or the Magic’s “Buried Child” (to name just three) are as worthy of a national audience as Alan Bennett’s “The Habit of Art” from the National. But somehow the imprimatur of “London” makes it a must-see for some.

And it’s not just broadcasts of plays. How many times, especially in recent years, have we had to suffer through the lousy “American” accents of British actors? (It was actually a shock for me to see Nicole Holofcener’s “Enough Said” and hear Toni Collette play with her own Australian accent, so used was I to hearing foreigners play characters who were American despite no real reasons in the script.) Sure, there are actors (Collette herself, Hugh Laurie. Alfred Molina) who can do superb dialects, but there are just as many (such as the cast of “Merrily”) whose attempts are cringe-worthy. But they’re British, so the assumption is that they’re better trained and better actors solely because of their nationality.

(I’ve also noticed the creeping use of British English subject/verb agreement. I always find myself making mental corrections when a singular entity, such as a corporation or company is said to do something with a “have,” as in “BART have announced the strike has been settled.” It’s “has,” dammit. Or when someone is said to be “in hospital” or there’s some kind of scandal in “sport.” It just sets my teeth on edge.)

Anyway, my point isn’t that we shouldn’t be exposed to British theatre; what they show us is usually worth seeing.” What I am saying is that I’d like to see American companies, as well; or even Russian, Brazilian, Malaysian, or French (the greatest thing I ever saw on stage was Théâtre du Soleil’s “Richard II.”) Why should audiences be deprived of great theatre just because it didn’t originate in the West End? In Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (the Berkeley Rep production of which I so raved about in this space last time), Vanya has a long rant about what he sees as the debasement of American popular culture (a rant I – and a good portion of the audience – agreed with, by the way). The rant includes this complaint: “The Ed Sullivan Show was before Bishop Sheen, and he had opera singers on, and performers from current Broadway shows. Richard Burton and Julie Andrews would sing songs from Camelot. It was wonderful. It helped theater be a part of the national consciousness, which it isn’t anymore.” As much as we all love the theatre – either as participant or spectator – unless we do something to restore that awareness among the public at large, we’re talking to ourselves – and a dwindling “ourselves” at that. I don’t know if the Americanization of televised theatre would change that awareness, but I’d sure like to see someone try it.

* Okay, there were the broadcast of the production of Sondheim and Furth’s “Company” that starred Neil Patrick Harris, and Christopher Plummer in “Barrymore” and “The Tempest,” but those were rarities.

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