Van­ish­ing acts

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

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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

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