David Lister: The Week in Arts

Stuff happens - conspiracy or no conspiracy
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You can't beat a good conspiracy theory. And at the Hay-on-Wye festival there was not just a good one, but a great one, a real corker.

Sir David Hare (for it was he) made the assertion that his play about Iraq, Stuff Happens, was taken off by the National Theatre in, he implies, sinister circumstances.

But that bald précis does not do justice to the sense of dark forces at work that Sir David conjures up. Here are his words: "I have had a lot of trouble with Stuff Happens. Mysterious trouble. It was playing to 100 per cent audiences in the Olivier Theatre and it was taken off. I have no idea why. I was promised it would be revived and it hasn't been revived and I have no clue why. It was then presented in Los Angeles, where it was playing to full houses, and the same thing happened; it was stopped again. I have no idea why. And now, a very brave off-Broadway producer has put it on at immense expense. And it's playing to full houses. I daily expect the closure notice, you know."

It's a global conspiracy, then. Is there no city on earth courageous enough to give Stuff Happens an extended run? But, wait a minute. The National Theatre has it in for David Hare? Is that the same National Theatre that is always putting on plays by David Hare? In rehearsal at the National Theatre at the moment is a version of Brecht's Galileo by David Hare. There must be 1,001 playwrights who feel aggrieved that they are not staged by the National Theatre. But David Hare? That surely is a piece of paranoia too far.

I saw Stuff Happens twice, because I am a fan of David Hare. Being present on two occasions, I can attest that he is a formidable playwright and an imperfect mathematician. There were some empty seats on both occasions, so he's not as hot on percentages as he is on playwriting.

But, leave that aside. Let's get back to the conspiracy theory. If, as he clearly implies, there was dirty work afoot, if stuff happened to have his play quietly removed from the stage, then he must be implying that government forces leaned on the National's management, and that well-known government stooge, the National's artistic director Nicholas Hytner, caved in.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when the Prime Minister summoned the NT's artistic director to order him to remove Stuff Happens from the repertory.

"Put something else on, Hytner, and quickly."

"I suppose I could revive The Royal Hunt of the Sun."

"What's that about?"

"Some imperialist attack on an innocent civilian population."

"Get a grip, Hytner, for goodness sake."

But if there wasn't foul play, why would the National Theatre have taken off this box-office hit? Luckily, Sir David Hare asked the theatre and received an answer. Sir David says: "[I was told] it'll be out of date next year."

Ha! Believe that if you will. They took off the play because it had had a good run, it wouldn't be quite as topical a year later, and the National Theatre is a repertory company, and it was someone else's turn. Actually, that sounds rather fair and reasonable and logical. And it was always unlikely to receive a West End transfer as the cast was far too large for West End economics. But that's all a bit boring and logistical. No government intervention, no MI5 operatives in the green room, no persecuted, political playwright.

The conspiracy theory was far more exciting. Surely David Hare can write a play about government and arts establishment conniving to keep off politically inconvenient plays. No doubt Ken Loach could turn it into a movie.

It's a family affair...

The singer Martha Wainwright played two sold-out gigs in London this week. She was not accompanied by her usual band, whom she described from the stage as "a bunch of smelly men in their 30s".

Instead she chose as her new band her mother Kate McGarrigle, aunt Anna McGarrigle (an internationally acclaimed duo in their day) and cousin Lily. That is certainly keeping it in the family. But, I couldn't help but notice at this excellent gig that the sometimes outrageous Martha (her song about her estranged father, the singer Loudon Wainwright, has one of the rudest titles in musical history) was finding it hard to be a badly behaved rock chick with mum and auntie behind her. "We've got some special guests tonight, so I'm going to race through the songs," she announced. "Don't race through this one," came a commanding voice from the piano. And when special guest Beth Orton came on stage, Martha could be heard pleading with her sotto voce: "Don't stand there; you'll block my mother."

* Tonight on Radio 2 there is a concert by Paul Simon. I was present at the recording and can strongly recommend it. If you do listen to it, you will note that the programme starts with a bout of frenzied applause. Allow me to let you into a technical secret about this bout of frenzied applause. When the concert was recorded, the host for the evening, Paul Gambaccini, said: "It is usual for these shows to start with a bout of frenzied applause. So could you give us some frenzied applause, please?"

Hence the frenzied applause. In fact, the frenzy had to be manufactured twice as the BBC equipment failed to work when the first frenzy was achieved. OK, this sort of guff has been going on for a long time. But, wouldn't it be nice to have some honesty as regards applause where television and radio are concerned?