- From Times Online, December 21, 2009
“The Decade From Hell” proclaimed a recent Time magazine. Not for the British theatre
- Benedict Nightingale
The Iraq war might not have been good for the world, but it wasn’t bad for the British theatre. It wasn’t just that a profoundly controversial conflict was the subject of several new works, such as David Hare’s Stuff Happens, and shaped some revivals, such as Katie Mitchell’s brilliant modernisation of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis. It seemed to encourage a fresh interest in politics on the part of our playwrights. And the result wasn’t the clockwork Marxism of the 1970s, but a more questing and questioning drama, such as Robin Soans’s Talking to Terrorists, one of many “verbatim” plays that appeared during the decade — and a piece that meant what its title said.
Fresh British dramatists appeared: among them Simon Stephens, Roy Williams, Alexi Kaye Campbell, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Polly Stenham, Charlotte Jones and Lucy Prebble, author of the money play Enron. But there were also worries. Apart from the dangerously funny Martin McDonagh, who is there who now has as distinctive a voice as, say, Osborne and Pinter? Who has the staying power to replace Churchill, Frayn, Bennett, Stoppard and Ayckbourn, all of whom are in their seventies?
The quality of acting remained undiminished, with Simon Russell Beale, Fiona Shaw, Clare Higgins, Mark Rylance, Henry Goodman, Janet McTeer, Harriet Walter, Greg Hicks, Roger Allam, Jennings and other middle-aged thesps reinforcing their claims to the thrones occupied by Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench.
Was it possible to discern a new physical power in an acting community once critised as over-reliant on vocal beauty? With the rise of a robust younger generation that includes Eve Best, Victoria Hamilton and Rory Kinnear, maybe so. In the digital age there will be a growing appetite for human contact, for the sheer immediacy of theatre, and our performers must satisfy it.
Not that technology is necessarily the enemy. More and more directors profitably embraced it during the decade. Think of Mitchell’s experiments at the National, Rupert Goold’s wildly inventive Six Characters in Search of an Author, and Complicite’s marvellous The Elephant Vanishes. That’s a trend that will continue, but needs watching, in case it substitutes for the lower-tech inventiveness of, say, the National’s War Horse or Robert Lepage’s Far Side of the Moon, a piece that did what theatre now must: exercise our most underused muscle, the imagination.
It was increasingly evident that the West End, like Broadway, was a home for musicals, not straight plays, most of which opened in subsidised theatres. Impresarios tried with mixed success to lessen risk by importing film and TV stars: a trend that, with imports varying from Christian Slater to Macaulay Culkin, David Schwimmer to Kathleen Turner, became more marked during the decade. And yet, despite a fearsome recession, the commercial theatre flourished, with the West End likely to end 2009 by breaking box-office records for the fourth year running.
Meanwhile, it has been a decade of successful takeovers at Britain’s principal subsidised theatres: Nicholas Hytner at the National, the Michaels Grandage, Attenborough and Boyd at the Donmar, Almeida and RSC, the last-named rescuing his company from the doldrums and soon to reopen a Stratford theatre that is having a £100 million makeover. “The Decade From Hell” proclaimed a recent Time magazine. Not for the British theatre.
- Face of the decade: Nicholas Hytner
He had successfully staged work from The Madness of George III to Miss Saigon but never run a playhouse when he took over the National in 2003. Since then he has not only directed memorable productions, such as The History Boys, but programmed ambitiously and often daringly, introduced the £10 Travelex ticket scheme that has brought new and younger audiences to the Olivier, and launched NT Live, transmitting performances to more than 300 cinemas in England and abroad.