When did you last see a Jacobean play or a Restoration Comedy? Some brilliant– and surprisingly pertinent–works of the past are being shamefully neglected
Some brilliant—and surprisingly pertinent—plays of the past are being shamefully neglected, says theatre critic Michael Billington
THIS has been an unusually rich year for new plays. The Ferryman, Albion (Theatre, November 8), Ink, Labour of Love and Beginning, transferring from the National to the Ambassadors in the New Year, have all impressed. The smaller London theatres also do an excellent job in reviving neglected works of the 20th century—i’m looking forward to seeing J. M. Barrie’s Dear
Brutus at Southwark Playhouse, Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance at Richmond’s Orange Tree and Jerome K. Jerome’s The Passing Of The Third Floor Back
(a real rarity) at the ever-reliable Finborough in Earl’s Court.
However, it strikes me there is a real gap: what you might term the standard British, and foreign, classic repertory. Of course, Shakespeare is still ubiquitous, although less so than in the past at hard-pressed regional theatres. Dominic Dromgoole is bravely mounting an Oscar Wilde season, starting with A Woman Of
No Importance, in the West End. The RSC does what it can to present a varied programme and the plays of Ibsen and Chekhov are never far away, but how often do we see the less familiar Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, Restoration Comedy or the late-18th-century masterworks of Sheridan and Goldsmith?
As a theatre-struck youngster in the 1950s and 60s, I felt I had regular exposure to the best of the past. Today, although there’s a lot of theatre available, there’s a danger of the repertory being whittled down.
One reason is the National Theatre’s gradual abandonment of its role as a library of world drama. I have raised this issue with its director, Rufus Norris, who politely explained that his main priority was to present a programme that represented today’s world. If, he explained, you want to strike a blow for gender equality, that virtually rules out the classics since there are so few pre-20th-century plays by women.
It’s right the National should be in tune with modern Britain, but its neglect of the past is shameful. It’s even reached a point where the National claims
Amadeus, written in 1979, and a free adaptation of Jane Eyre by Sally Cookson and the cast as ‘classics’. That is not what I mean by the term.
I can think of other reasons why the classics are being slowly abandoned. They often require large casts and they can be difficult in that they use words and sentence structures that feel alien. Middle-scale touring groups, such as Prospect and the Actors’ Company, often led by rising stars such as Ian Mckellen and Derek Jacobi, have disappeared off the theatrical map. There’s a growing sense that the past is a foreign country and that, in a fast-
‘I can think of other reasons why the classics are being slowly abandoned
moving, hi-tech age, we’re doomed to live in a constant present.
I still believe there are plays which merit revival. You can’t, for instance, fully understand
Hamlet without seeing the daddy of all Elizabethan revenge plays, Thomas Kyd’s The
Spanish Tragedy, written in 1587; it worked beautifully when the National revived it in 1982 with Michael Bryant as the besotted avenger, Hieronimo, so why not today? In an age obsessed by gender-fluidity, I would have thought now was the time to resurrect Ben Jonson’s Epicoene or The Silent
Woman, a genuinely disturbing comedy—the Some Like It
Hot of its day. Moving into Caroline times, a recent sighting of James Shirley’s The Cardinal at Southwark Playhouse made me wonder why this prolific dramatist remains unhonoured outside the precincts of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, where he was educated.
It’s not just our own past that we ignore. We’re even more wary of exploring the byways of European drama. Recently, I was involved in a celebration of the work of Schiller at a London fringe theatre, the Bunker. My happy task was to talk to Dame Eileen Atkins about playing the Joan of Arc portrayed by Shaw and Shakespeare, but it struck both of us as odd that we hardly ever see Schiller’s romantic version of the same story, The Maid of Orleans.
Shortly after Schiller was celebrating Joan, Heinrich von Kleist wrote in 1808 the greatest of all German comedies, The Broken Jug, in which a corrupt judge finds himself examining a crime in which he turns out to be the culprit. It’s Oedipus
Rex played for laughs but, aside from a free version Blake Morrison did for Northern Broadsides in 1995, the play remains a virtual stranger to our shores.
At a time when anti-semitism is hotly debated, it would be fascinating to see a revival of Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor
Bernhardi about the persecution of a Jewish doctor in early-20th-century Vienna: I saw a London fringe revival in 2005 that left the audience gripped.
I’m not pleading for these plays simply out of curiosity. I’m suggesting that they’re all viable works that would engage a modern audience. I would even suggest that it would be fascinating to see these plays set in their historical context— I recall a particularly fine German production by Peter Stein of The Broken Jug, which didn’t prevent the play seeming topical because it was staged with microscopic rural realism. In Britain, however, the vogue is to do ‘re-imagined’ versions of the classics. Instead of Turgenev’s A Month In The Country, the National gives us Patrick Marber’s fore-shortened version,
Three Days In The Country. The Donmar Warehouse revives Shaw’s Saint Joan and, for no clear reason, sets it in a modern world of high finance. Even the revered RSC took a classic Elizabethan murder mystery,
Arden of Faversham, and inexplicably relocated it to contemporary Essex.
I’m all for modernity and a theatre that engages with today’s big issues, but I see a danger in cutting ourselves off from history or narcissistically assuming that every play ever written is really about us. Theatre, at its best, has an extraordinary capacity for unlocking the past and ushering us into other worlds and I worry that we are gradually losing sight of that quality.
The father of revenge plays: the National’s 1982 production of Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy