The Sunday Times

April 4th, 2010

There is another miraculous tale this Easter – British theatre

Easter is a time of celebration, even for heathens such as me. This time of year brings the first signs of spring, my children’s birthdays, happy memories of Easter egg hunts and family rituals and altogether a feeling that the miserable grip of winter is loosening. And there’s something wonderful still, even for the irreligious, about the punctuation of the year by ancient religious festivals. Humans seem to feel a need for such rituals of the imagination, and that need does not disappear with the loss of a particular faith.

Something else that partly meets that need, and is also true cause for celebration in this country, is theatre. Theatre arises out of religion obviously enough. Professional English theatre developed from the medieval mystery plays performed by craft guilds to teach and celebrate Christian miracles. And now in this country we have theatrical traditions and talents that are truly dazzling.

In the midst of our national self-doubt and economic decline, it is worth remembering that British theatre is a national and international treasure, from the great state-subsidised temples of culture down to the smallest experimental one-woman show under a railway arch. If you cannot honestly celebrate the resurrection of Christ, you can at least celebrate the enduring miracle of British theatrical talent and see a play.

My enthusiasm is the result of having worked for the past couple of years as a theatre critic for the magazine Standpoint.

In the course of my pleasant duties I have to see lots of plays and as a result my feelings of gratitude and national pride keep swelling. I have always liked going to plays, but have now come to feel a much deeper admiration for everybody and everything that goes into getting one onto a stage.

The competition is ferocious. Countless writers, designers, directors, costume makers, artists, actors and all the rest face lives of insecurity, rejection and poverty in pursuit of the holy grail of a real production; the sacrifices they make in the name of their vocation are astonishing. It is often said that ars longa, vita brevis — life is short but art is long. I feel it is the other way around for struggling talents in the theatre: ars brevis, vita longa — life is long and moments of art are all too brief, for artists at least.

As a result of all this competition, it is rare to see a production here that is bad and common to see one that is very good. Even those that don’t entirely work are often full of talent and energy and well worth seeing. Given the ferocious competition that theatre faces from cinema and television, this is truly remarkable.

In the past few months there have been several productions that have given me the sense I had as a teenager of the transformative magic of theatre. One was Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, the prize-winning writer, now at the Apollo after a successful first showing at the Royal Court. This is a good example — like the equally successful Enron, which is now at the Noël Coward theatre after a big success at the Royal Court — of a new play proving itself first in the subsidised theatre and moving on to commercial success in the West End.

As a result of my recent theatre-going, I’ve become a late-life convert to the idea of subsidised theatre generally, both inside and outside London. Without it we would not have the great blossoming of British drama and all the talent that depends on it, which feeds the success of cinema, television and tourism, to say nothing of feeding the imagination of the general public.

Jerusalem is about England’s green and pleasant land, ancient and modern, centred on a mesmerising gypsy drunk played by the great Mark Rylance. It is truly remarkable. Anyone who has the chance should go and see it — such plays and such performances, even here, are rare. Another production that cast the true spell of theatre was Complicite’s dazzling production of Shun-kin at the Barbican last year. The Barbican is a treasure house of interesting productions and events, many of them international (Shun-kin was performed in Japanese by a Japanese cast).

Another exceptional show at the Barbican, for a few days only last year, was Raoul, entirely designed and silently performed by the mime artist James Thiérrée (a French grandson of Charlie Chaplin). Like Shun-kin, Raoul crosses so many physical and imaginary boundaries that it keeps the audience as raptly intent as fascinated children.

There is almost always at least one good production of Shakespeare in London and regularly outside London, too. The geriatric Romeo and Juliet at Stratford is not to be missed. The most dazzling Shakespeare production I have seen recently was All’s Well That Ends Well at the Olivier last summer; even though it’s an unsatisfactory play, the wealth of imagination that went into creating it in the idiom of a quirky fairy story, which compensated for the weaknesses of the play, was among the best of British theatre. Jude Law’s Hamlet was pretty good, too, and a touching interpretation.

People are inclined to say our theatre is insular, but that is not my experience. Apart from Helen Mirren’s Phèdre last year, in a version by Ted Hughes, I’ve seen several Russian and German plays, including Brecht and Mikhalkov at the National Theatre and Chekhov’s Ivanov at the Donmar, Horvath’s Judgment Day at the Almeida, with a couple in Russian at the Barbican. Bulgakov’s The White Guard, about post-revolutionary Russia, has just opened at the Lyttelton with exceptionally fine sets; when the National lets loose all the talents it has on a production, in the way of set design, lighting, scene shifting, costume, speech coaches and choreographers (not to mention the directors and actors), the result is dazzling.

London Assurance, the early 19th-century comedy at the Olivier, is dripping with talent; two of Britain’s starriest actors, Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw, ham up two comic roles with obvious delight. He plays an ageing effeminate exquisite in search of a rich wife and she plays the indomitable and tricksy Lady Gay Spanker in what is a silly romp — but what a romp.

One can only say, to borrow Dr Johnson’s famous remark, that anyone who is tired of British theatre is tired of life. Happy Easter.

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