Adrian Hamilton: The Week in Arts

Too few stoop to conquer the classics

Tuesday 09 July 2013 02:00

But that's the point. What Sir Peter is doing at Bath, and was doing at the Old Vic in London a few years ago, is to reintroduce the classic, popular repertoire to the English stage. You can dismiss him, as some are inclined, as a relic from the past. One rather suspects that Sir Peter has chosen Waiting for Godot as one of the four plays in this season precisely to answer that misapprehension and to remind a younger generation that he was the first to introduce Beckett to the London stage and usher in modernist theatre to this country.

One wouldn't blame him. For the way Sir Peter is treated in this country is a national disgrace. In Japan he would have long since been categorised as a national treasure. Here he is sidelined. In reality he is filling a gap that desperately needs filling, and which isn't being filled by the major state-subsidised companies. The comedy of manners, the play of wit, has always been one the great and consistent glories of English theatre from Ben Jonson and Shakespeare onwards. It's a theatre that has inspired writers and also generations of character actors, performing larger than life "types" and "grotesques". It's also been a theatre which has given particularly good parts for mature actresses.

A decade or so ago there would be barely a season when the National Theatre didn't do a Rivals or She Stoops to Conquer while the RSC opened up whole seams of Stuart comedy. Now both seem to have retreated from this territory altogether. You can see why. For the bright young director of today there is little glamour in a new production of Sheridan or Shaw. Because they rely so much on verbal wit and the social conventions of their time which they are satirising, there are limits to how far you can make them "contemporary" or "relevant" in the modern manner (itself a convention). Directors prefer to look to television and film for their inspiration. Hence the extraordinary number of plays from films on the London stage such as Festen, Billy Elliot and The Producers.

Yet to dismiss a whole tradition of comedy as somehow irrelevant seems to me quite wrong. Just look at the revival of interest in Handel and baroque opera. Twenty years ago it seemed dead and gone for ever. Now it is flourishing because there is an audience that is prepared to understand the conventions of the form and to delight in them.

We have the actors and actresses, not just in an older generation such as Penelope Keith, Maggie Smith and Edward Fox, but also a new generation born out of television soaps where the conventions and the depiction of types are very much in the tradition of the stage. What we need are theatres that believe in the tradition and are ready to freshen it up for new audiences.

Sir Peter Hall isn't altogether doing that. He is spread too thinly to do today what he did for the RSC and Glyndebourne after the war. But what he's trying to do is right. If only those receiving public funds would do the same.

Little ado at the National

Apart from being one of the most impressively cast theatre productions in London, Nicholas Hytner's Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 at the National Theatre has produced one other considerable achievement - the use of black actors in major Shakespearean parts without needing to making any fuss about it. David Harewood, pictured in the part of Hotspur (with Matthew MacFadyen as Hal), and Jeffrey Kissoon, as the old Duke, are both excellent. The bravado and bluffness of Harry Percy and the cowardice of his father are difficult to bring off. Both managed it naturally.

As a Northumbrian-born schoolboy I was always dragooned into the role of Harry or his father, concocting a quite artificial Geordie accent (artificial to me and to the part, as Northumbrian sounds quite different to the Tyneside) to fit the preconceptions of the Bard.

It's a only a year since we were acclaiming the first black Henry V. Now it would barely be noticed.

* The days of easily available returned tickets for the London theatre are probably drawing to a close as London returns from vacation. Mayor Livingstone has come up with his plans to cheer up the capital after the bombings. We're promised cheap theatre tickets, behind-the-scene tours and theatre workshops. But can't we get those anyway and how much is going to be spent on them?

The real celebrations for the mayor, one fears, and the ones on which money will be spent are not the diurnal cultural events of the city but the extravaganza - the 1 September Olympics party in Trafalgar Square, the fireworks on the Thames on Trafalgar Day and festivals around Oxford Street. And what's the attraction of these? They are events which politicians can claim the credit for themselves. With a heavy heart one fears this will be the pattern all the way up to the Olympics in 2012. Bread and circuses without the bread, particularly the bread needed to keep the arts going week by week, year by year.

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