Per­form­ing Arts

Michael Billing­ton won­ders if the di­rec­tors are more in­ter­ested in gim­micks than the plays’ texts

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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

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