David Lister: The Week in Arts

Silly class divisions in Sloane Square
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The Independent Online

I was reminded this week of that well known theatrical tale, possibly apocryphal, of the lady in Victorian times who remarked at the end of a performance of Antony and Cleopatra: "How different, how very different, from the home life of our own dear Queen."

Bizarrely, the person who seemed to be making the similar judgement that audiences like to see their own lives and familiar surroundings mirrored on stage was the new artistic director of the Royal Court, Dominic Cooke.

I'm an admirer of Mr Cooke. He had a number of successes, directing plays with the RSC, and his production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible was one of the most electrifying stagings of last year. But this week, announcing his first roster of plays at the Royal Court, he said something that took my breath away.

Mr Cooke said he wanted to move away from the Royal Court's image for kitchen-sink plays and plays about the working class and underclass, and present plays about liberal, middle-class lives, so that audiences would have to ask some awkward questions about themselves. He wanted to focus on "what it means to have wealth and power and privilege".

There's nothing necessarily wrong with that. What I found most bizarre was his reasoning. He mentioned that the Royal Court was in the wealthiest borough in the country and its audiences walked past Hugo Boss and Tiffany's to watch the experience of working-class people in Sheffield. He said: "It's very easy to objectify that and say, 'That's nothing like me.' So alongside that I want to put work on that seems to be more immediately recognisable to them."

Gosh. There's a lot to chew on there. First, on behalf of the citizens of South Yorkshire, I'm not sure that Sheffield should be held up as the kitchen-sink capital of Britain. Second, what's all this about walking past Tiffany's and Hugo Boss to get to the Royal Court? I, for one, always go by Tube, as the theatre is bang next to the station. And as someone who loathes everything to do with shopping, I have never even noticed which shops are in Sloane Square. So Mr Cooke's audience is actually divided between motorists and Tube travellers. Those of us who use the Tube arrive after a sweaty, uncomfortable journey crowded with representatives of all classes, even the odd bod down from Sheffield. So where does that leave his theory?

The bigger point is: what is this idea that the location of a theatre actually affects an audience's appreciation of what is on stage? Can I not watch Macbeth's thugs murdering Lady Macduff at Stratford-upon-Avon because the theatre is next to a peaceful river with beautiful swans and one can have tea and scones in the interval?

Even more bizarre is his idea that theatregoers lose interest if a different class is being portrayed on stage. Do any theatregoers really come out of a performance of Look Back in Anger and say, in Mr Cooke's words, "That's nothing like me"?

Sometimes theatre directors show a lack of understanding of their audiences, and indeed can be mighty patronising. There's much that Mr Cooke can do at the Royal Court to make it more relevant. He could commission plays about religious fundamentalism for a start. That would be a challenging and brave thing to do. But whatever he does, he should stop fretting that we theatregoers might be alarmed that the people on stage are nothing like us. We're a bit too grown up for that. And, as long as the productions are good and thought provoking, we really don't care which shops are across the square. Honest.

Shattered dreams

The film Dreamgirls, a thinly disguised story of the Supremes, has revived one of the oldest chestnuts in pop history. It's the one about the supposed injustice of Florence Ballard being demoted from lead singer of the Supremes in favour of bandmate Diana Ross. For sure, it's got all the ingredients of a tearjerker.

Ballard was the driving force behind the group in its early days, but Ross was romantically involved with the head of Motown, who quickly made her queen bee. Ballard's spirit was broken, and her life later destroyed by alcoholism. It makes, and has always made, a much better story than saying that Diana Ross had the best voice in the group.

But actually one only has to listen to the records. She's good. She's very good. She's Diana Ross. I suppose it just makes a very short film and a very poor pop legend simply to report that the one in the sequinned gowns with the large fortune actually had a better voice than the tragic girl who died at the age of 32.

* Who'd be a sponsor of a literary award? Costa, the coffee chain, has taken over from Whitbread, the drinks chain, as sponsor of one of the leading literary prizes. I turned on BBC Radio news at 10pm on the night of the prize last Wednesday. And sure enough it was one of the headlines. A debut novel wins "the literary prize that used to be known as the Whitbread", said the BBC announcer. Poor old Costa. Not a mention in the headlines. Lucky old Whitbread - it doesn't put a penny into it this year and it's still getting all the credit.

BBC radio news the next morning made up for the mistake. More or less. It announced the winner of the Costa Prize, reminding listeners that it "used to be known as the Booker". Oops. Not quite. Somebody had better have a large drink. Or a strong cup of coffee. Or maybe just read a book.

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