In which the author decries institutional theatre.
A few days ago, I was one of the many thousands who have been trooping to movie theatres to see a broadcast of Benedict Cumberbatch in the National Theatre’s production of Hamlet. I’ll begin this by saying that I’m generally a fan of Mr. Cumberbatch’s (the film of August: Osage County excepted; but, other than Margo Martindale, no one got out of that movie alive) and was highly looking forward to it.
My take on the overall reaction is that it’s been generally favorable, with reservations. That was pretty much my reaction. It was intelligent, reasonably well-spoken, and coherent, but not very gripping. (I’ll mention here that my wife loved it and found it “muscular” and though it clarified many of the knottier aspects of the text, so the opinions expressed herein are my own.)
What it lacked for me, though, was any sense of danger or even visceral excitement. In my mind, if Hamlet is anything, it’s everything. It’s a meditation on mortality. It’s a revenge story. It’s a comedy, a tragedy, a ghost story, an examination of the thought process. You name it, it’s got it. There’s so much in it that the one thing it shouldn’t be is routine. It’s not just another play; it’s the play. It’s the role. There’s got to be a reason to do it.
Unfortunately, the production I saw was just kinda there, trapped in a concept that had something to so with a big house and a lot of dirt. (Seriously, I felt sorry for the stage crew that had to lug all that dirt on stage at intermission and then clean it all up at the end of the evening.) It felt like the director had a big star and the huge budget that came with him and decided to spend all of it on her set rather than trying to tell her story in a gripping manner.
I’ve explained before about how tired I am of plays from London being broadcast on American movie screens. I’ve got nothing against the Brits per se, but I am tired of them being cast as Americans (I mean, how many more crappy accents do I need to hear?) and seeing their shows held up perfect exemplars of theatrical excellence. (“They have Training!”)
But the specific problem with this Hamlet, to me, was that, since the National is subsidized and paid for by the government, while it may not be swimming in money, it has so much that it can waste it on elephantine sets representing Elsinore.
The program cover. A shiny dime to anyone who can explain its relevance to the production.
Every so often, we hear calls for an American National Theatre. There have been numerous attempts to create one over the decades, probably as early as Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Rep in the ‘20s and ‘30s, Ellis Rabb’s APA-Phoenix in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and Tony Randall’s National Actors Theatre in the ‘90s and ‘00s. The problem with this plan is that it almost always centers around New York (there was some talk of creating a company at the Kennedy Center in Washington, but it didn’t last and was a rarity). That talk makes sense in that the center of commercial American theatre is indeed those 15 or so blocks in midtown Manhattan, but it also assumes that that’s the only place anything worthwhile is being done and that only work with a commercial focus is worthy. (One might also add parenthetically that it also seems to be the only place Equity actors who want to work in the Bay Area come from.)
This theory is, of course, arrant nonsense. One would be hard pressed to find a corner of the country where interesting and vital work isn’t being done. Seattle, Portland, Ashland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego – and that’s just part of the west coast and leaves out Denver, Chicago, Dallas, DC, Boston, Cleveland, Florida, Louisville, Minneapolis, and on and on and on and on. Any of these cities is producing work that can stand with anything done anyplace on the globe, but, of course, most of the country will never see or hear of it because it doesn’t come with the imprimatur of having a London or New York pedigree.
It makes sense for the Brits to put an English national theatre in London. The capitol is the center of the U.K.’s entertainment industry. TV, radio, film, and theatre are all headquartered there. But how would we justify placing an American national theatre in just one city? I suppose it would be possible to emulate the Federal Theatre of the New Deal era and have multiple locations and troupes, but the whole point of theatre is to be in that room with those people while they tell a story. Even screening productions in movie theatres wouldn’t be a solution, because, for all our pretenses, it’s really just another movie at that point. This is especially true if the production is recorded rather than live. Those actors are going to do the exact same things in the exact same way for eternity. The spontaneity and reaction to the audience that are at the heart of the art don’t exist. It doesn’t matter if the theatre is full or empty; the performances and production are frozen and will not change.
I remember in 1976, Christopher Durang and Mel Marvin’s A History of the American Film (which, I might add, is a very funny show that someone ought to revive – although, frankly, Americans’ knowledge of classic film isn’t as strong now as it was then, so most of the references would be lost) had three simultaneous premiere productions, in Los Angeles (where I saw it), Hartford, and DC. Was one of these more official than the other two? Despite doing the same script at the same time – even if they somehow each had the same design and same director (which they didn’t) – each was different because of the unique casts, venues, and regional receptions. There was no way to centralize the productions, and there never will be. Even a tour, which might be the best/only solution, would have variations from venue to venue.
The "Salad Bowl" number from A History of the American Film
But the larger point, even if we could figure out a reasonable solution to the problem, was embodied for me in Hamlet and other shows I’ve seen at the National (either in person or on screen). They can be well done – really well done – but they’re safe and don’t take any risks. I don’t know if it’s that they don’t want to upset their government sponsors or don’t feel any pressure, but it never feels like there’s an imperative behind it. They’re nice to look at and intelligent, but they’re antiseptic.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I had no prejudice against the production because it had a big star in it. As I said, I him and actually applaud him for doing it. And there’s nothing wrong with big names in plays. I couldn’t have enjoyed Kevin Spacey or Nathan Lane in their own productions of The Iceman Cometh or Peter Falk and Joe Mantegna and Peter Falk in Glengarry Glen Ross, Harold Pinter in (yes, in) Old Times, or Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot any more if I’d tried.
The shows I’ve loved the most in my life – Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil production of Richard II, Mary Zimmerman’s Metamophoses, José Quintero’s The Iceman Cometh, Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 and Ghost Quartet, even Casey Nicholaw’s The Drowsy Chaperone – were big and bold and personal and even messy in places, but there was a recognizable artistic sensibility behind them. They were shows that had to be done.
Mr. Malloy in Natasha and Pierre
When I was in college, I remember overhearing the faculty planning the shows they’d be doing the next year. There was no excitement about the choices; it was more like “Well, we haven’t done a Moliere for a while … ” or “Do you want to do a Shakespeare this year?” “Naw, how about an Ibsen?” “Yeah. I guess … ”
If that kind of listless programming is the cost of creating a national theatre that doesn’t take enough chances to endanger its funding, I’ll take regional theatres that at least try something different.