It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: Who Needs a National Theatre?

In which Dave Sikula decries institutional theatre.

A few days ago, I was one of the many thousands who have been trooping to movie theatres to see a broadcast of Benedict Cumberbatch in the National Theatre’s production of Hamlet. I’ll begin this by saying that I’m generally a fan of Mr. Cumberbatch’s (the film of August: Osage County excepted; but, other than Margo Martindale, no one got out of that movie alive) and was highly looking forward to it.

My take on the overall reaction is that it’s been generally favorable, with reservations. That was pretty much my reaction. It was intelligent, reasonably well-spoken, and coherent, but not very gripping. (I’ll mention here that my wife loved it and found it “muscular” and though it clarified many of the knottier aspects of the text, so the opinions expressed herein are my own.)

What it lacked for me, though, was any sense of danger or even visceral excitement. In my mind, if Hamlet is anything, it’s everything. It’s a meditation on mortality. It’s a revenge story. It’s a comedy, a tragedy, a ghost story, an examination of the thought process. You name it, it’s got it. There’s so much in it that the one thing it shouldn’t be is routine. It’s not just another play; it’s the play. It’s the role. There’s got to be a reason to do it.

Unfortunately, the production I saw was just kinda there, trapped in a concept that had something to so with a big house and a lot of dirt. (Seriously, I felt sorry for the stage crew that had to lug all that dirt on stage at intermission and then clean it all up at the end of the evening.) It felt like the director had a big star and the huge budget that came with him and decided to spend all of it on her set rather than trying to tell her story in a gripping manner.

I’ve explained before about how tired I am of plays from London being broadcast on American movie screens. I’ve got nothing against the Brits per se, but I am tired of them being cast as Americans (I mean, how many more crappy accents do I need to hear?) and seeing their shows held up perfect exemplars of theatrical excellence. (“They have Training!”)

But the specific problem with this Hamlet, to me, was that, since the National is subsidized and paid for by the government, while it may not be swimming in money, it has so much that it can waste it on elephantine sets representing Elsinore.

The program cover. A shiny dime to anyone who can explain its relevance to the production.

The program cover. A shiny dime to anyone who can explain its relevance to the production.

Every so often, we hear calls for an American National Theatre. There have been numerous attempts to create one over the decades, probably as early as Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Rep in the ‘20s and ‘30s, Ellis Rabb’s APA-Phoenix in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and Tony Randall’s National Actors Theatre in the ‘90s and ‘00s. The problem with this plan is that it almost always centers around New York (there was some talk of creating a company at the Kennedy Center in Washington, but it didn’t last and was a rarity). That talk makes sense in that the center of commercial American theatre is indeed those 15 or so blocks in midtown Manhattan, but it also assumes that that’s the only place anything worthwhile is being done and that only work with a commercial focus is worthy. (One might also add parenthetically that it also seems to be the only place Equity actors who want to work in the Bay Area come from.)

This theory is, of course, arrant nonsense. One would be hard pressed to find a corner of the country where interesting and vital work isn’t being done. Seattle, Portland, Ashland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego – and that’s just part of the west coast and leaves out Denver, Chicago, Dallas, DC, Boston, Cleveland, Florida, Louisville, Minneapolis, and on and on and on and on. Any of these cities is producing work that can stand with anything done anyplace on the globe, but, of course, most of the country will never see or hear of it because it doesn’t come with the imprimatur of having a London or New York pedigree.

It makes sense for the Brits to put an English national theatre in London. The capitol is the center of the U.K.’s entertainment industry. TV, radio, film, and theatre are all headquartered there. But how would we justify placing an American national theatre in just one city? I suppose it would be possible to emulate the Federal Theatre of the New Deal era and have multiple locations and troupes, but the whole point of theatre is to be in that room with those people while they tell a story. Even screening productions in movie theatres wouldn’t be a solution, because, for all our pretenses, it’s really just another movie at that point. This is especially true if the production is recorded rather than live. Those actors are going to do the exact same things in the exact same way for eternity. The spontaneity and reaction to the audience that are at the heart of the art don’t exist. It doesn’t matter if the theatre is full or empty; the performances and production are frozen and will not change.

I remember in 1976, Christopher Durang and Mel Marvin’s A History of the American Film (which, I might add, is a very funny show that someone ought to revive – although, frankly, Americans’ knowledge of classic film isn’t as strong now as it was then, so most of the references would be lost) had three simultaneous premiere productions, in Los Angeles (where I saw it), Hartford, and DC. Was one of these more official than the other two? Despite doing the same script at the same time – even if they somehow each had the same design and same director (which they didn’t) – each was different because of the unique casts, venues, and regional receptions. There was no way to centralize the productions, and there never will be. Even a tour, which might be the best/only solution, would have variations from venue to venue.

The

The “Salad Bowl” number from A History of the American Film.

But the larger point, even if we could figure out a reasonable solution to the problem, was embodied for me in Hamlet and other shows I’ve seen at the National (either in person or on screen). They can be well done – really well done – but they’re safe and don’t take any risks. I don’t know if it’s that they don’t want to upset their government sponsors or don’t feel any pressure, but it never feels like there’s an imperative behind it. They’re nice to look at and intelligent, but they’re antiseptic.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I had no prejudice against the production because it had a big star in it. As I said, I him and actually applaud him for doing it. And there’s nothing wrong with big names in plays. I couldn’t have enjoyed Kevin Spacey or Nathan Lane in their own productions of The Iceman Cometh or Peter Falk and Joe Mantegna and Peter Falk in Glengarry Glen Ross, Harold Pinter in (yes, in) Old Times, or Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot any more if I’d tried.

The shows I’ve loved the most in my life – Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil production of Richard II, Mary Zimmerman’s Metamophoses, José Quintero’s The Iceman Cometh, Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 and Ghost Quartet, even Casey Nicholaw’s The Drowsy Chaperone – were big and bold and personal and even messy in places, but there was a recognizable artistic sensibility behind them. They were shows that had to be done.

Mr. Malloy in Natasha and Pierre.

Mr. Malloy in Natasha and Pierre.

When I was in college, I remember overhearing the faculty planning the shows they’d be doing the next year. There was no excitement about the choices; it was more like “Well, we haven’t done a Moliere for a while … ” or “Do you want to do a Shakespeare this year?” “Naw, how about an Ibsen?” “Yeah. I guess … ”

If that kind of listless programming is the cost of creating a national theatre that doesn’t take enough chances to endanger its funding, I’ll take regional theatres that at least try something different.

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.