Last week, continuing my rolling tour, annoying the British public for my new hidden- camera show, we rolled into Stratford-upon-Avon. As everyone knows, this is one of the UK's major tourist destinations (one of the reasons we were filming there). As the cameras rolled, however, I couldn't help feeling a little sorry for the international visitors. To put it bluntly, there isn't much to see in Stratford. Visitors wander around trying to ignore the expensive temptations of every retail chain in existence, while occasionally stumbling upon an old house that Shakespeare was supposed to have been born in or sampled his first doughnut in. Other than that, there are a couple of statues and the opportunity to brave the homicidal swans and go for a boat ride on the river Avon.
The big draw, of course, is the Royal Shakespeare Company itself. Its theatre is a mecca for the Shakespeare fan club, of which I have never been a member. I remember innumerable school trips to Stratford to see some of the classics. Sadly, I only ever lasted for the first act of each one. At the interval we'd sneak off to the pub and get completely rat-arsed before boarding the coach back to school and attempting not to throw up.
The best thing I remember seeing in Stratford was in the Dirty Duck pub near the theatre. I was there during one of my second-half escapes when I witnessed quite a punch-up between the singer Ian Dury (he was involved in a play at the time) and a member of the public. This magnificent spectacle kept us all hooked from the very first scene. It was so real, so visceral, so exciting – something I have never really experienced in a theatre.
"You just need to see the right production," cultured friends tell me. "We've got tickets for something so powerful it will blow your mind." So, despite my misgivings, I find myself trooping up to London to see something, and invariably, after 20 minutes or so, I find myself fidgeting in my seat and surreptitiously glancing at my watch longing for this torture to end. By the second act, I am dong everything in my power to prevent myself from standing up and shouting: "Anyone fancy a pint?"
For the same cost as two West End tickets, I can pretty much see every great movie made in the past 100 years in the comfort of my own living room and I don't have to queue up beforehand to reserve the opportunity to pay £20 for a glass of wine and a packet of cheese and onion crisps. So I genuinely don't see the point in theatre. It's all so... hammy.
I totally understand the purpose it served back in the Dark Ages, before TV and film, when people needed entertainment. Back then, it allowed men an avenue to dress up as women, let people learn a bit of history, and gave them a good night out to boot. And they were allowed to shout stuff out and heckle the performers, something that would greatly improve the modern theatregoing experience. But why stop there? We should bring back the glorious tradition of being able to bring in rotten fruit to hurl at the stage when you are bored.
"Hell is other people," said Sartre. No – it's an evening at the theatre.