Leading article: A mixed review for this angry young man

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The Independent Culture
GORE VIDAL once said that the only people who enjoy themselves in the theatre are the cast. For much of the time, he is right. Which theatre-goer has not looked at his or her watch or wondered why the seats are so uncomfortable in the middle of a supposedly engrossing and emotional performance? It is not a new observation. John Osborne got himself all worked up about the staid politeness of middle-class life in general and the theatre in particular 40 years ago, and tried to shake it up. Not that Look Back in Anger would keep everyone from fiddling with their programme notes.

Steven Berkoff revived the angry spirit with his demand that drama should be "in your face" - to similarly mixed reviews. Now Irvine Welsh, famous for the ambiguous heroin chic of Trainspotting, has become the latest angry young person to rail against the suffocating politeness and tedium of British theatre.

He certainly succeeded in shocking the bourgeois: one critic described his new play, You'll Have Had Your Hole, as "the most obnoxious and contemptible"that he had ever seen. Indeed, his tale of gangsterism, anal rape, torture and drug-taking would not be to everyone's taste. But there is something rather predictable about Mr Welsh's rant against the elitism of modern theatre. It might have made the pulse race faster in Mr Osborne's day; now it is easier to dismiss such adolescent posturing as mere publicity- seeking.

But what of the substance of Mr Welsh's complaint that, because theatre is a "posher and older" medium than the cinema, most West End plays are "soporific" and most theatres have a "cricket Test ambience designed to keep a younger, hipper crew away"?

It is true that too much of our theatre is self-satisfied, too many bad plays are put on and too many audiences are prepared to put up with it because they think they are being highbrow. And these are faults that all too few people involved in the theatre will recognise. But there are boring films and books as well. Imagine an author going on a talk show to launch a tirade against Captain Corelli's Mandolin, saying it was silly and pompous and demanding to know who on earth could afford to pay pounds 17.99 for the hardback. He or she would be laughed out of the studio. If you do not like a book, you can stop reading it. If the film is no good, you can go to sleep until it is over or engage in traditional back-row- of-the-movies pastimes. If a rock concert is not as good as the CD you can go and get a drink. But theatre is different. The audience is implicated in the performance. It is trapped. If people are bored, it affects what happens on stage. Whatever a cinema audience does, it does not change what is on the screen.

That is why the audience for a mediocre play feels embarrassed, constrained and annoyed. But that is also why, if a live performance succeeds in "breaking through", it is so much more powerful than a film. The audience can be swept up in a way that is all the more memorable for not relying on the set changing with every shot, or the special effects, or the fact that the director was able to choose the best of 40 takes. It is precisely the closed-in, inescapable nature of the theatre that makes great drama great.

Sadly, the reality is that there is too much tedious drama staged and, as Mr Welsh says, too little innovation. But to extrapolate from this that "theatre is finished as an art form", a theme that appears in the national press every three months or so, is daft. Because when the theatre is good, it can be sublime. Depending on taste, a good Shakespeare production, a good Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, a good farce, even a good Irvine Welsh play, can stay with you for life in a way nothing else can.