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The King’s Speech five times a year!  No, it’s not a leaked BBC plan for the jubilee year coverage, nor is it the programme for the Kuala Lumpur Golf Ladies’ Cine-Club.  It’s the future of the British film industry as laid out by David Cameron in a speech last month during a visit to Pinewood Studios.  The Tory peer Julian Fellowes weighed in on the Prime Minister’s side, suggesting that this country has to stop its concern with “films of minority interest” and produce box-office blockbusters with international appeal.  The attraction is obvious: wouldn’t it be great if our cultural industries[1] could stop “breaking through” every now and then, causing magazine stories about how “The Brits Are Coming!” and simply compete on an international level all the time?  Taking a massive world hit like The King’s Speech – or Slumdog Millionaire, which was also mentioned – and rolling out the template seems like a logical way to proceed.  There must be elements of this work which made it successful, so we can identify them and reproduce them to achieve equivalent success next time, and the time after that.  The trouble is, this attitude betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the performing arts and they way in which they’ve worked for the last hundred or so years.  We’re being treated to the spectacle of a Conservative government trying to dismantle a Victorian system, which is a deeply unsettling idea on several levels.

For a start, the performing arts are in a constant state of change.  It’s difficult to identify what makes a show particularly successful[2], even in retrospect.  It’s close to impossible to predict how long those elements are going to continue to bring in big box office figures.  This is partly the audiences’ taste for novelty, but also something more serious: the fact that shows are always in a dialogue with the world at large.  This is true of their subject matter, from obviously “topical” plays which tackle political issues like Guantanamo (war on terror) and Greenland (global warming) to works which engage more subtly with shifts in how we live and behave, such as The English Game (male bonding) or Season’s Greetings (marriage and family).  It’s true as well of the way they get their ideas across – the language, the way plots are constructed, even characters’ jobs and hairstyles.  Reading plays from the 70s and 80s I’m often aware of a definite “flavour” in the dialogue which makes me check the publication date.

This becomes particularly obvious when we look at the way supposedly “timeless” classics like the plays of Shakespeare have been performed in the past.  A quick listen to recordings of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 60s brings it gigglingly or squirmingly home how quickly and dramatically artistic styles change on the stage, and how out of place past heroes would look.  The legendary director Peter Brook imagines Shakespeare’s plays as like a collection of planets which are always moving in relation to us.  Some seem remote to our concerns, but will swing in towards us in some years’ time, whilst others appear to blot out all the rest in their urgency, but will recede before long.  More prosaically, in another book he noted that the “half-life” of a Shakespeare production seems to be about five years.  After five years’ touring, all the aspects of a production, the costumes, sets, “the short-hands of behaviour which stand for certain emotions; gestures, gesticulations and tones of voice” do not ring so true anymore and need to be reworked. According to Brook, this is because “life is moving, influences are playing on actor and audience, and other plays, other arts, the cinema, television, current events, join in the constant rewriting of history and the amending of the daily truth.”  For future shows to be successful, or even functional, they cannot be based on a template from ten years ago.  The King’s Speech might work a couple of times more, but it will quickly fade as a model for new films.

So performance arts are always pushing forwards.  Whether they’re improving or degenerating or simply adapting isn’t the point at issue: whatever we believe, they’re continually changing.  This brings us to the second misunderstanding in the “Five King’s Speeches!” approach, which overlooks where innovation comes from.  This is where the Victorians come in.  The late nineteenth century saw the arrival of a set of small theatre groups, such as the Independent Theatre Society, which were modelled on the “Free Theatres” of Europe.  These groups, often semi-professional or amateur, frequently arranged as private clubs to circumvent the censors, were the beginnings of what we recognise as an theatrical avant-garde.  They were convinced that the mainstream theatre was complacent, sentimental, shallow and needed serious shaking up – or even destroying – and they staged the works of shocking Continentals like Ibsen and Zola.  On seeing the Independent Theatre Society’s production of Ibsen’s Ghosts (which included references to hereditary syphilis and the hypocrisy of middle-class life), the Daily Telegraph’s theatre critic described it as “an open sewer, a hideous untreated wound, a filthy act performed in public”, which must have satisfied them immensely.  Modern “classic” playwrights like George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde were part of this late-Victorian movement to hammer away at the cultural mainstream until it was forced to take notice of them, and adapt itself to their innovations.

This pattern recurs throughout the last century, as small theatre groups have a disproportionate effect upon the mainstream.  The 1920s and 30s theatre clubs documented in Norman Marshall’s The Other Theatre passed the tradition on through the success of Look Back In Anger at the Royal Court Theatre, which came to sum up a whole generation of “angry young men”, to the “in-yer-face theatre” of Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane in the 1990s.  The theatrical establishment has been criticised for “taming” such firebrands, for disarming them by bringing them in from the cold and warming away their anger with awards and commissions.  But whichever side you’re on, it’s difficult to deny that the energy and the innovation has come from the edge.  The terminology of the performing arts, whether referring to the “fringe” at the Edinburgh Festival or “off-off-Broadway”, builds this metaphor into the way we talk about shows.

Commercial theatre capitalised eagerly upon the creative research and development labs which the theatre groups on the edge provide.  To take a couple of quick examples from a whole fistful of experiments which the mainstream capitalised upon, it’s worth looking at Shakespeare’s Globe and the hit musical Spring Awakening.  The Globe Theatre[3] looks like the least radical and out-there theatre in London.  Its reconstructed Tudorish structure sits there on the Thames, inviting crowds of theatre-goers in to enjoy the camaraderie of sitting on wooden benches or standing in the yard whilst they all partake of the most secure of cultural values: Shakespeare.  But a hundred years ago, this kind of theatre would have been unthinkable to most people.  Late-Victorian Shakespeare productions were dominated by enormous spectacles, in which hundreds of extras in lavish costumes would be arranged in striking tableaux, with the scenes rearranged to accommodate the static grandeur.  The only people who thought Shakespeare might be better on a bare stage with a few props,  spoken swiftly and easily rather than declaimed, and with no set-shifting between scenes, were theatrical radicals.  People like William Poel, an amateur and frankly eccentric character, who longed to restore what he thought
of as Shakespeare’s own theatre, and whose ideas worked their way through the cranky fringes to revolutionize the way we perform Shakespeare today.  Peter Hall, who founded the Royal Shakespeare Company, has ascribed the company’s basic philosophy to Poel’s experiments, and the style of performance we see at The Globe today can be traced back to the work of Poel and other late-Victorian outsiders.

Spring Awakening provides an even more obvious example of commercial theatre borrowing enthusiastically from the fringes.  The musical, which has won eight Tony awards and four Oliviers, is based on a play of the same name by the German dramatist Frank Wedekind.  He wrote it in the early 1890s, whilst William Poel was trying to work out how to build an Elizabethan stage and the Independent Theatre Society were calculating how many lines of Ibsen would offend as many Victorians as possible per square foot of theatre, but the play took a long time to reach an English-speaking audience.  A 1917 New York production could only take place briefly and with limits on the audience, as Spring Awakening was considered obscene, but it did manage a 1955 off-Broadway performance.  It popped up again in 1963 in England, censored and performed only for two nights.  The version I used to teach my students last term was translated in 1974 by Edward Bond, who was himself a famously controversial playwright at the Royal Court Theatre in the 1960s.  (His play Saved, which evinced horror at its premiere in 1965, was recently successfully revived in the West End.)  In the late 2000s, this notorious and shocking play was made into a musical to astounding acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic.

Spring Awakening started out in the 1890s, spent the twentieth century ducking and weaving its way up through the various fringe theatres, and ended up as a smash hit on Broadway.  Given time, the commercial theatre is adept at co-opting the fire and frenzy of the theatres on the edge.  This is why the idea of The King’s Speech five times a year is a terrible one.  It wouldn’t just impoverish the inventive and daring theatre artists out on the fringe, it would starve the mainstream of its accustomed source of new ideas.  Pouring money into the big blockbuster productions would ultimately deprive them of a future.  I often hear people complain about the money spent on what Julian Fellowes called work of “minority interest”, the abstruse or weird-looking stuff.  If it’s any good, they ask, why won’t anyone buy tickets to see it –people don’t want high-brow experimental rubbish, they want enjoyable, emotionally touching entertainment like Andrew Lloyd-Webber shows.  I can see their point, to an extent: Lloyd-Webber has a keen sense of what audiences enjoy, and sometimes seems able to churn it out at will, as if he’d discovered the template I suggested earlier doesn’t exist.  But last week he announced he was giving £150,000 to the Royal Court Theatre to support emerging playwrights, particularly those who were young or from minority communities.  The premier purveyor of solid enjoyable what-the-public-wants has donated a chunk of money to the theatre which has been a hub for aggressive new writing for half a century, from the alienated fury of Look Back in Anger in the 50s to the obscenities and shocks of Shopping and F*cking in the 90s.  I don’t much enjoy Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s shows, but I have to admit he knows a bit about how the theatre works.


[1] No, I don’t like that term either, but I think it captures the attitude towards the arts which live behind Cameron and Fellowes’ comments.

[2] I’m going to talk about theatre performance in this piece because it’s the field I know more about, and because it offers a clear continuity with the late-Victorian theatre system which I think sheds light on both theatre and films.  From what I know about cinema, I believe a similar principle operates, where the fringes influence the mainstream, but I’m open to being corrected by those who know different!

[3] Correctly known as “Globe III” to theatre historians, but that’s another story…

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