National Theatre bans critics’ plus one invitations

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/18/national-theatre-director-takes-revenge-on-theatre-critics-as-pl/

Interesting movement by National Theatre, who are no longer providing comps to critics’ guests. It is a fair move, in my (very small) experience of receiving free tickets for productions I am always a bit thrown when I am offered a pair. As an amateur it impresses my companion but really I am there to do a job, not entertain a friend or my latest fancy piece.

The critics are not happy, especially it was a throwaway line at an invitation to the anticipated Threepenny Opera starring Rory Kinnear but I don’t think this is sour grapes at a negative response to a poor season (I’ve voiced my concerns elsewhere) but a money saving measure that will hopefully lead to prices stabilising for those who aren’t fortunate to get free tickets. Some members also received an email from Rufus Norris stating that the drum revolve needs some additional finance as it isn’t working as well as it used to.

It is a worrying precedent for subsidised theatre though and just one result of the arts cuts many organisations are facing. This is another nail in the coffin for a theatre that has had to axe Sunday productions 

Criticising the Critics: Why reviewing performance is impossible

In my day job I work for an exam board and coordinate practical drama exams (my life is surrounded by DRAMA!) and I recently attended a training day for our examiners, it became clear that analysing performance is actually impossible, unlike other performance exams such a music it feels utterly subjective, even guidance seems impossible to decipher, especially in the brief time examiners have to analyse a performance. It made me wonder; how exactly does a critic judge a good performance.

As someone who writes and reviews I wish there was a guide book for critics, detailing what requirements a play must have to get 5 stars because I highly suspect they just make it up as they go along. It doesn’t help that there seems to be a lot of love for large theatres with star names and very little time or tolerance for smaller theatres above pubs.

My suggestion is a marks system-which I have stolen from one of my job’s exams!

A production is rated out of 100 on;

  • Group dynamic
  • Individual performances
  • Staging
  • Design (including set, props and costume)
  • Technical (including lighting and sound)

It makes far more sense for a critic analyse all these important elements separately rather than be blinded by the star name, the incredible set or how good the interval ice cream was, I would ideally include this in all reviews. Video game reviews use a similar out of 100 rating system and it is pretty clear that anything under 60 is probably not worth someone’s time but it has its flaws. What do I know about technical or design beyond “The lighting was good, I could see the set” or “the set was pretty”. It could be argued “What do I know about a good play!”

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I am not suggesting we remove all reviews but there needs to be a consistency, too many reviews which seem like 2 stars at best are then given 5 star reviews. I know there is probably some politics I am not privy too but it is alienating theatre goers, confused by why they’ve just paid £50+ to see something utterly dreadful, muttering “but Michael Billington said it was good” as they leave the theatre.

#TheatreSoWhite

A friend recently sent me this speech by journalist Diep Tran at the recent American Theatre Critics Association conference, focusing on why theatre criticism in America was so white and whether it was racist, asking questions of Black and Ethnic Minority playwrights that it wouldn’t ask of white playwrights.

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Adrian Lester in Red Velvet

It is a question that needs to be asked in the UK, why is theatre so white-from directors, playwrights, producers, box office and audience members. What makes theatre so alienating to people of colour? The obvious answer is the productions. There is no doubt that if you see plays like The Amen Corner (James Baldwin), Red Velvet (Lolita Chakrabarti) and Les Blancs (Lorraine Hansberry) the audience will contain more BME faces than your average Shakespeare. As a BME, who will see nearly anything, I am a bit perplexed, why do people feel they need to represented, why are BME plays still a novelty that see an increase in BME audience members? Is it the same for plays about Jewish characters, for example?

Even Lenny Henry was confused by the dominance of white audience members when he appeared in Comedy of Errors at the National Theatre, speaking at platform for the National’s Shakespeare 400 programme Henry said;

“The interesting thing was that the audience was generally quite monocultural. I was standing there, with this incredibly diverse group of actors on stage, and looking out at the audience it was clear to me that something needed to be done.”

I agree with Henry, going to BME plays by playwrights or modern plays that feature black characters prominently attract a mirror audience but a predominately black Shakespeare production or play with mostly white people BME audiences stay away. It can’t be factors such as cost and location so why is theatre failing to be so multicultural.

I suspect the issue is that black people know they will be the minority and why spend £30 upwards to see more dominance of the white majority (available of TV and film as well as life). I suspect there is a cultural thing as well; there are no major black acting dynasties and, personally, I don’t think Black or Asian culture encourages a creative career whether back or front stage.

Opportunities are few and far between, this week Eclipse Theatre Company announced the winners of a fund to encourage more black and Asian writing. This is great step but sending non-white playwrights to the small theatres of UK, where nobody will see them, doesn’t solve the issue. Where are the well known theatres in such schemes? This solution is merely a plaster on a large wound.

Long into the night; extended productions at the theatre

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The Crucible Old Vic (2014)

My ideal format for a play is 7:30pm start, an interval at about 8:30pm or 8:45pm then a 9:30pm finish. I like an interval ice cream or else I would drop the interval altogether. Increasingly plays seem to be getting longer and longer in London theatres. This is perhaps acceptable on a Friday or Saturday but with an awareness that attendees book weeks, perhaps months in advance is it time to ban any play that doesn’t end by 10:30.

At the Almeida and later a transfer at the Trafalgar Studios Robert Icke’s The Oresteia ran for a staggering 3 hours and 40 minutes, including intervals.  My classicist friend was prepared, the play started at 7pm and there were strict interval times with on stage countdown. When I booked for Icke’s Uncle Vanya at the Almeida I should have been prepared for a long play but gasped in horror at its 3 hours and 20 minutes running time with three 10 minute intervals.

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Oresteia (2015) Tristam Kenton

It started at 7:30pm; this is unacceptable for a play over 3 hours. No producer should assume its audience is local, with its great transport links London theatre belongs as much to Home Counties as well as locals and tourists staying in hotels. It doesn’t exactly lead to relaxing, happy experience; people rush for trains, people look on with envy at those rushing for trains, people yawn dramatically and look at their watch and crucially people push down their rivals to get to the toilet or bar as soon as that interval darkness looms!

If this was a cinema people would have little ground to complain; final running time is usually known as soon as it gets the certificate but theatre isn’t like that. For many of us in the audience we booked the tickets months ago and even for those that booked last minute for a preview are going in blind. The website still says ‘Running time: TBC’ and you have to hope it will be finished by 9:30, maybe 9:45 at a push.

Various plays in 2016 have been guilty of being over 3 hours; The Master Builder (Matthew Warchus), The Caretaker (Matthew Warchus again), The Crucible (Yael Farber) all at the Old Vic and more recently Man and Superman (Simon Godwin, who also did the very long Strange Interlude) and  Les Blancs (Yael Farber again) at National Theatre. I hope I won’t have to avoid certain directors, casts and stories I enjoy because the running time with affect me getting home at a sensible hour but I feel theatres need to simply liaise with their directors and if a play is going to be over 3 and half hours contact all ticket holders and let them know of a 7pm start.

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Uncle Vanya (Almeida) 2016

It feels like there is no consideration for an audience, which has booked so early because they are avoiding high costs or just want a guaranteed seat. If theatre is going to encourage new crowds really long plays, which could be cut down in some cases, are not the way forward.

How Do You Solve a Problem like the National Theatre?

I’ve struggled with the productions at the National Theatre over the last 18 months or so, I don’t simply blame Rufus Norris, a lot of the National’s problems go back to changes made by Sir Nicholas Hytner as part of NT Future.  I am not happy admitting this because the National is literally a national treasure but from being my main theatre it is now a theatre I have booked very little for.

Let’s start with the productions, two months ago Norris et al announced this VERY EXCITING 2016 and Beyond announcement. Fiennes! Hare! Amadeus! Hedda Gabbler! Angels in America! All great but all so samey, I cannot go to theatre without seeing Fiennes (Man and Superman, The Master Builder and soon to be Richard III), I like Hare but Hare is everywhere and him writing or adapting a play is no long exciting. The only thing that feels fresh and exciting is Angels in America and personally I am not excited about the casting of Andrew Scott, Russell Tovey and Denise Gough but it is great to see a modern classic back where it belongs.

The problem with the upcoming season is that it is all familiar revivals, it seems the natural antidote to the new productions such as Wonder.Land, which were poor but completely ignores all the poor revivals and adaptations of 2015; Waste, Husbands and Sons and Everyman to name a few.

My main problem with the NT recently has been the casting. Glenda Jackson is off to the Old Vic, Vanessa Redgrave is at the Almeida, Sirs Patrick and Ian are going on tour and appearing at the Wyndham’s and younger stars like Kit Harrington (Doctor Faustus) and Jesse Eisenberg (The Spoils) are appearing elsewhere at the West End. The NT (based on current casting) is not attracting the big names anymore and it is a real shame.

Increasingly the NT is relying on transfers; both from and to other theatres. People, Places and Things deserves its acclaim, as does The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time but it is also relying on Chichester Festival Theatre’s hits such as Young Chekov and returning the favour by sending This House (Cottesloe and Olivier) to Chichester in October but sadly its new works just don’t excite me.

There are other issues with the NT, The Dorfman is a horrible space-it feels no better than the cramped Cottesloe and only works if a production is in the round, restaurants such as the Green Room are terrible and NT have removed the light meal option from the cafes concentrating on increasing bar space. Plus they have introduced a dynamic pricing, meaning that if you want to see a show on a weekend then it will cost you more than in the week. They aren’t the only theatre doing this but for a theatre of the nation it is a pretty poor way to go.

May Contain Nuts: Nudity on the stage

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Freddie Fox and Tom Colley in The Judas Kiss (Hampstead)

I’ll be blunt. I enjoy the prospect of nudity, male or female I am equal opportunities, a bit too much. I think the warnings that appear on websites or via an usher’s mouth make it feel like it is a very naughty private play that the Lord Chamberlain might burst in on at any minute. Is nudity just a gimmick to get (clothed) bottoms on seats or is it often crucial to the narrative.

The recent cancellation of The Curing Room by David Ian Lee about soviet soldiers captured and stripped naked, a state they remain in throughout the play, got me considering other nudity on stage in London at the moment.  It feels like you cannot look up from your gin and tonic and not see a naked person what with Cleansed (National Theatre) and Mrs Henderson Presents (Noel Coward) currently in the West End. I recently signed up as a “Supporting Artiste” and was asked would I get naked for a part. The answer is no and I think that is the root of my fascination with actors that take on roles which see them naked night after night in relatively small spaces. My immediate reaction to hearing that highly respected actors like Michelle Terry and Emma Williams were getting completely nude was “Why?” when actually I should have asked “Well, why not?” Nudity is crucial to both of their productions yet  it still seems extremely brave.

 

Actors get naked on screen all the time, even a respected actor like Mark Rylance did full front nudity in Intimacy (2001) but on the stage it feels really personal and for some audience members a bit embarrassing “I didn’t know where to look!” I was told in a twitter conversation about the recent The Judas Kiss revival with Rupert Everett and Freddie Fox. It featured the gorgeous and rather well endowed Tom Colley walking around stage, completely nude.  That sounds really indulgent but it felt right for the story of Oscar Wilde, a man ultimately bought down by his quest for sexual pleasure and it came from the pen of David Hare-a playwright not known for adding nudity for no reason.

Richard Eyre’s Little Eyolf recently added a nude scene where there wasn’t one in the text. The majority of the audience would probably have been unaware as it worked so well but I did see it described as “gratuitous” but when there are some very dodgy casting calls, just see @ProResting on twitter for some examples. I think a professional director would not add a nude scene unless it was absolutely necessary. I think theatre audiences expect any nudity to have context, or they are just keen to see their favourite actor naked…

Shakespeare @400

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Ian McKellent in Richard III (1995)

23 April 2016 sees the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Here’s a guide to the best theatrical alternatives in London.

Film

BFI Shakespeare on Film, April-May

Highlights in April include Ian McKellen’s screen adaptation of Richard Eyre’s Richard III (1995), an adaptation of Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), Kenneth Branagh’s A Much Ado About Nothing (1993) and Peter Brook’s King Lear (1970)

The Complete Walk, Shakespeare’s Globe, 23-24 April

The Globe has produced 37 Shakespeare adaptations to be shown along the River Thames featuring some of Britain’s finest actors.

Talks

National Theatre’s Celebrating Shakespeare Platforms , 19-22 April

The National Theatre presents a series of talks and conversations about the NT’s relationship with Shakespeare as well as talks with actors and directors about their performances and productions.

Shakespearean Performance in Modern London: Discussions and Performances on the Shakespeare in Modern Theatre, The Rose Theatre Southwark, 25 April

Presentations by directors Duncan Moore (KDC Theatre), Bryon Fear (South London Theatre) and Tom Salyers (Tower Theatre) alongside Pepe Pryke from the Rose Theatre Trust about recent productions of Shakespeare plays and how they are relevant to life in modern London.

Shakespeare in 1916: The First World War & the Origins of Global Shakespeare, Senate House, 3 May

In this talk, Professor Gordon McMullan will reflect on the intersection of the Shakespeare Tercentenary and the First World War, looking in particular at one of the main elements of Tercentenary commemoration, Israel Gollancz’s Book of Homage to Shakespeare..

Performance

Romeo and Juliet, Royal Festival Hall, 15 April

Jaime Martín conducts music from Prokofiev’s celebrated ballet score.

Late at the Library: World Book Night celebrates, British Library 23 April

An alternative night of Shakespearean festivities in honour of our greatest writer, hosted by actor and author Ben Crystal, with special guests, performance, music and food and drink.

For more events see http://www.shakespeare400.org/

In praise of…unreserved seating

This post originally appeared on London Theatre Direct 19 March 2016

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Southwark Playhouse in South London

I am aware some will look at this headline with confusion, maybe even repulsion but I can explain. Unreserved seating isn’t just about spoiling your pre-theatre bar time but about a fair ticketing system that allows friends to book separately and the over organised (or those with the sharpest elbows) to triumph. I look at the many pros, the occasional con that is unreserved seating.

I recently booked for Bug at Found111, one of London theatres newest and, by all word of mouth accounts, oddest spaces. There are stairs, lots and lots of stairs and unreserved seating. This would be fine in most small theatres but with James Norton and with previous productions of the play containing nudity I am not expecting to be the only patron in the room but I am expecting more drama from the audience than I am from the play.

People cannot cope with unreserved seating. Picture the scene: a group of twenty rocks up with their drinks two minutes before the start time and SHOCK! HORROR! they can’t sit together, there’s grumbling, pleading looks with other audience members to move for them and it is a sad sight. I don’t want to patronise you about how unreserved seating works but the key thing to learn is it is dog eat dog. Get there an hour early, get there twenty hours early if an attractive, well known actor might get naked (I am quite myopic so obviously it is crucial I sit on the front row on such occasions) as soon as that queue starts moving you move with it.

It is sounds hideously stressful, doesn’t it? I know people who boycott theatres that don’t have reserved seating and Southwark Playhouse responded to complaints about the policy for Grey Gardens by making the upcoming musical, Toxic Avenger, allocated seating. I do understand the anxiety, as a mainly solo theatre attendee I have turned up with not much time to spare for sold out/nearly sold out productions and still got a good seat but when I recently saw P’yongyang at the Finborough Theatre I made my friend wolf down her food because “It was sold out and we have to get the best seats and SCREAM!” We were the second and third person to arrive in that small space. We did get front row to stretch our legs though so having an anxious seat fiend as a friend has its pluses, honestly!

The key issue is how well a venue is selling. For many productions in unreserved spaces they simply do not sell out but why are smaller venues becoming so popular and why is there a demand for allocated seating? I believe more people are taking a chance on off-West End venues, that tend to offer such seating policies, because the pricing is much cheaper than the West End and it is attracting some interesting “star” names and for many of us that live in London these venues are much closer to home. I still believe there is a place for unreserved seating, all the ticket prices are the same and the red flag waving Socialist in me likes that but it might be worth small theatres experimenting with allocated seating for shows that they suspect will be popular, if the King’s Head can allocate seating than anyone can!

 

Update: Southwark Playhouse’s large spaces, for both plays and musicals, are allocated seating.