Arts & Books: Is our theatre really boring?

Eight out of ten British productions send John Godber of the Hull Truck Theatre Company to sleep, he says. But going to the theatre is still a special event, insists Paul Taylor
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The Independent Culture
John Godber has claimed that eight out of 10 theatre productions are tedious. Given the ubiquity of his own work (he hit the No. 3 spot, trailing after only Shakespeare and Alan Ayckbourn, in the 1993 most performed playwrights league), one first thought was that this is a bit like Bill Gates arguing that eight of out 10 computer systems are dodgy. But it seems that Godber does not put himself above his own strictures and, in any case, was speaking in the context of the Edinburgh Fringe, where, to find two out of 10 non-tedious productions would be a cause for celebration.

Being disappointed by theatre is as much a national habit as continuing to create theatre that is lively and challenging. That theatre can let you down particularly badly is the correlative of the fact that when it works and is uplifting, it is matchlessly so. "I want to go to the theatre and come out with the same feeling I had after England played Argentina in the World Cup," says Godber. Not a modest demand, and one more likely to be met, you'd have thought, by the communal quasi-religious experience of Greek tragedy than by any of the Hull Truck Company's own efforts. His remark is indicative of the higher, sometimes unreasonable, requirements people make of theatre than of lower-brow, non-live art forms.

I think Godber's diagnosis is unduly gloomy. Yes, you have to wade through a lot of dross. But theatre regularly gives heartening proof that it continues to be the genre where writers can take the greatest risks, whether this be in the complexity and profundity of the ideas explored (plays like Michael Frayn's Copenhagen and Tom Stoppard's Invention of Love could not have originated on film or television) or in the uncompromising explicitness of the emotional undressing (as in Patrick Marber's Closer and Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking.

Theatre continues to be the genre where an audience has the strongest sense of itself as a community and of its moment-by-moment effect on the performance. Say what you like about the quality of an average production at Shakespeare's Globe, but the architecture of the place gives the audience a starring role. You watch the play and watch yourself watching it. And theatre continues to be the genre that makes the most potent use of site- specific atmospheres. Moving away from conventional auditoria to the ruined splendour of the defunct St Pancras Hotel, or the ghostly shell of Wilton's Music Hall, productions by Deborah Warner have stirringly tapped into the genius loci.

Of course, as a theatre critic with vested interest, I would say all of this, wouldn't I? Alan Bennett, in his Diaries, takes Steven Berkoff to task for saying that critics are like worn-out old tarts. "If only they were," writes Bennett, "the theatre would be in a better state. In fact, critics are much more like dizzy girls out for the evening, happy to be taken in by any plausible rogue who will flatter their silly heads while knowing roughly the whereabouts of their private parts."

Well, speaking as a critic whose private parts often remain unmolested, I still have to say that I believe Godber underestimates the ratio of theatrical successes to duds.

"The middle-classes," asserts Godber, "are going to the video shop and getting their bottle of Oxford Landing and staying at home as much as the working classes are."

It's arguable that to rouse people from that kind of passivity, theatre has to make itself as adventurously unlike all the alternative experiences as possible. Theatre should be a special event, but too many people understand this to mean a show with crudely lavish production values that let you see where all your ticket money has gone. A special event is not an infinitely clonable Andrew-Lloyd-Webber type musical. It's the antithesis of that.


Godber Said

From my ivory tower of Hull, London's main stage has a clubbishness. That's got to be pierced somehow. The choice or productions, for example, have a 'university graduate' cleverness about them. Good theatre ought to both challenge and reaffirm your view of the world. The middle classes are going to the video shop and getting their bottle of Oxford Landing and staying at home as much as the working classes are. I want to go to the theatre and come out with the feeling I had after England played Argentina in the World Cup. If you say anything about the state of British theatre it seems to be kind of heresy.

Views from Centre Stage

Sir Peter Hall

IT IS a nice little silly season joke that John Godber has made. I think he should go to the theatre more often - he says he hasn't been to the National for 10 years. But it is very flattering to the theatre that it has had so much coverage. For this so-called minority art, the number of column inches is wonderful.

As for eight out of 10 plays being dull, that's nonsense, and for every bad play there is bad film and a bad TV programme, and plenty of bad music too. You need a bit of bad for the good to stand out, though I think the record of the theatre in the last 50 years has been an absolute Golden Age. We've got well over 20 world-ranking playwrights, more than any other country, and no one can match up to us.

As far as the venues go, I'd much rather go to the National than to a Broadway theatre. Over there, you have to go out onto the pavement in the snow at interval and you can't get a drink. I believe we still have the best theatre and the best theatre ecology in the world, in spite of all that Margaret Thatcher did to wreck it. It is inevitable when you are good at something that nutters like John Godber will say you are not. But we need these nutters.It's very good that we have all this discussion. I actually think he is rather good.

Philip Howard, artistic director of the Traverse Theatre Company

I THOUGHT it was very disappointing. He was very dismissive about Mark Ravenhill's play, which he admits to not having seen, only read. As a playwright, he should know better than to condemn it on a reading. It is a wonderful play and a very fine production. I am a great admirer of John Godber's work, and I think he does himself no favours bracketing himself in the populist vein, with everyone else left as the snobs. It is a brave man who thinks they are so sure about what an audience wants. There is a danger that to be so sure of what they want and to equate it with what they can relate to can lead to patronising your audience, not that he personally is guilty of this. There is a whole world which writers create, which audiences get seduced into, and it may not be the one they recognise from the classroom or the cocktail bar or the ski slopes. Audiences in Britain are no less happy with playwrights imagined worlds. Staying in to watch a video says more about John Godber than about the theatre.