Cross Words: Curtain calls
Head to head Is there a role for Hollywood stars in the West End? Theatre directors Nancy Meckler and Jenny Topper argue it out
Saturday 26 September 1998
"The commercial theatre has traditionally put greater emphasis on stars. It's perfectly reasonable to have a sector of theatre that brings in audiences on the basis of who is in the show. What I have difficulty with is non-commercial theatres making celebrities the main attraction. I think it's admirable if someone like Nicole Kidman wants to come to London and have a go at a challenging part, but if you're committed to working idealistically, as my company, Shared Experience, is, it creates an odd pressure when other small, idealistic outfits like the Donmar, Almeida and Hampstead start using the same tools as commercial theatre.
When all these companies began, they were based on a model that started in the late Sixties. The aim was to create an alternative to the established theatre, where one could experiment with writing and performance and build committed ensemble playing. With this current spate of Hollywood-celebrity-lead productions, there's a feeling that, no matter what the work is, there isn't any reason why it shouldn't have a star in it.
The point of interest should be the play and the performance but what's sad about our society is that celebrity seems to be the event that takes over all others. If you put a screen star in a play, that is inevitably what the audience come to see. Everyone is waiting for that actor to come on. I wonder whether so many people would have gone to see The Iceman Cometh if Kevin Spacey hadn't been in it. It is argued that this kind of production brings in people who wouldn't ordinarily go to the theatre - but I'm not sure that it encourages them to come back. My fear is that it feeds their hunger for celebrity."
Nancy Meckler is Shared Experience's artistic director, her `Anna Karenina' is at Lyric Hammersmith to 10 Oct (0181-741 2311)
"In 1991, at the height of his fame, John Malkovich came to Hampstead Theatre to repeat his New York performance in Lanford Wilson's Burn This. Should I have denied the opportunity of seeing that extraordinary performance because John was too famous?
It would be foolish to deny that a star does not attract new or previously indifferent audiences. As a result of Ewan McGregor appearing in Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs later this year, hundreds of young people who have never been to Hampstead Theatre before, perhaps never seen a play before, will have a new experience. I wouldn't be doing the play if I didn't think him absolutely right for the part. I believe that an outstanding actor so subsumes themselves in a role, that the audience becomes absorbed in the character rather than the idea of a famous person being on the stage.
The wonderful thing about not-for-profit theatre in this country is that it is so varied. We all work in difficult circumstances: there's never enough money, working conditions are often tough. We share a burning conviction that we can make unusual theatre but the ways that we do it are rarely the same. So for Shared Experience, the ensemble is the production. For other companies, that is not the case or point. Each of us is, however, looking to serve the play as best we can and this includes getting the casting right. Cast a big name in the wrong part and audiences will stay away in droves. As to whether audiences will return once the siren call of celebrity no longer sounds, my experience tells me that some do, and some don't. What I do know is that no member of an audience, touched by seeing a great performance by a great name at close quarters, will forget that experience."
Jenny Topper is the artistic director of Hampstead Theatre
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