Michael Billington wonders if the directors are more interested in gimmicks than the plays’ texts
Are today’s directors going too far, asks Michael Billington
Recently, Sir David Hare raised a theatrical storm, bitterly attacking the cult of concept-driven directors whose cavalier treatment of classic texts is ‘beginning to infect British theatre’. Instantly, this produced a set of polarised reactions. On the one hand, a lot of people, many of them young, praised the rise of creative directors; others sighed wistfully for an age in which actors and writers called the shots.
Personally, I think the whole issue needs a more nuanced response. I have some sympathy with Sir David’s argument. I have also noticed how many young British directors seek to imitate their continental counterparts by treating texts as a springboard for their own fevered imagination. At the same time, the British theatre in my lifetime has benefited hugely from the vision of pioneering directors such as Joan littlewood, Peter Brook and tyrone Guthrie. Between them, they changed our notion of what a play could be, revitalised classic texts and even reconfigured our stages: the crucible in Sheffield and the chichester Festival theatre both owe a big debt to Guthrie’s tireless campaign against the proscenium arch.
Where does that leave us today? My own view is that you have to view each production on its merits rather than taking a hard dogmatic line. take the work of the Belgian director Ivo van Hove, who is a god to some and a devil to others. I know that his production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler—running at the national until March 21—has almost given some people a seizure, yet I thought his modern-dress production, with Ruth Wilson’s Hedda roaming the stage clad in what I dubbed a Freudian slip, caught perfectly the heroine’s demonism, despair and helpless entrapment in a loveless marriage.
I was less thrilled, however, by Mr van Hove’s award-winning 2014 production of A View From
the Bridge at the young Vic. It certainly captured the resemblance of Arthur Miller’s play to Greek tragedy. What it signally failed to do, unlike a brilliant revival by Alan Ayckbourn at the national theatre, was to show that Miller’s play is also a social drama: a study of a Brooklyn longshoreman who fatally betrays the laws of his Italianate tribe. In the end, it comes down to whether you believe the director’s vision corresponds with the author’s intentions or betrays them. It’s all highly subjective and leads to endless contradictions.
Some work of Mr van Hove I admire; some I don’t. Similarly, I find myself in two minds about the new, ubiquitous generation of Australian directors who take an irreverent approach to the classics. Simon Stone’s radical new version of lorca’s Yerma at
The staging of An Inspector Calls enhances the drama and supernatural elements of the story without overwhelming them
Escaped Alone’s simple set allowed the performances to shine