Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

David Hare on His Ideal Theatre

Dramatists, Directors, Workshops & Much Else

Critical discussion in 2018 kicked off with a combustible January. The cause was not theatre but the visual arts. Clare Gannaway, curator of contemporary art at Manchester Art Gallery, took a picture by Victorian artist John William Waterhouse off the wall and put it in the cellar. To complete the erasure of the picture, postcards of “Hylas and the Nymphs” were removed from the gallery shop. The explanation was that the aim of the removal was to provoke debate. The public was asked to put post-it notes around the notice of removal.

This had a problem. Visitors do not want to debate anything. They have travelled to see pictures. It is curators who want to debate and the Pre-Raphaelites are popular with the public, albeit not with curators. The reaction was predictable and splenetic. Comparison with the burning of books was immediate.

The artist Michael Browne said he was worried the past was being erased: “I don’t like the replacement and removal of art and being told “that’s wrong and this is right”. They are using their power to veto art in a public collection.” “A crass gesture that will end up on the wrong side of history”, thundered a critical voice, “this censorship belongs in the bin along with Section 28’s war on gay culture and the prosecution of Penguin Books for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960...backtracks 60 years or more into an era of repression and hypocrisy. The great freedoms of modernity include, like it or not, freedom of sexual expression..I can’t pretend to respect such authoritarianism. It is the just the spectre of an oppressive past wearing new clothes – and if we fall for the disguise we sign away every liberal value.”

The storm blew. Authority was chastened and the painting was returned.

David Hare is enjoying a flourishing autumn of a career. He is even becoming a David Edgar in the length of his prose pieces. The Guardian bears down heavy on the length of reviews, slashed Lyn Gardner's commentary a couple of years and sacked her at the end of May. But on New Year's Day Hare was given the space of 2800 words for a piece entitled “My Ideal Theatre.” It is an enjoyable piece, blending nostalgia and provocation, but fuelled by love and dedication.

Its inspiration is George Orwell. His great 1946 essay described a pub of the imagination that he called “the Moon Under Water.” It embraced everything that was good about the public house. So too, writes Hare, “for my whole life, I have dreamed of having all my plays done at a theatre which, sadly, exists only in my mind, although the important elements of it, happily, exist in many.” His idea theatre is to be located “in a place where people actually live.” Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in Stratford East is remembered. He likes the Minerva in Chichester: “one of the best-designed theatres in the UK, because it has a huge playing space for epic plays, and yet the audience’s experience is extremely intimate. But fine as it is, it’s still a black box, and very few black boxes carry history. They wipe themselves clean with each production.” I don't really get this.

Purpose: “the primary purpose will be to do new plays, and these plays will represent and reflect the society they are performed in. There will be no need for gender or racial quotas, either on stage or off, because, by definition, if the artistic director follows this governing policy, then everything good will follow. More than half the plays will be by women, women will gloriously people the stage, and the vibrant multiculturalism of the society we inhabit will be in front of you in its variety and abundance.”
Youth: “The artistic director will be under 30, because only the young can regenerate the form. The less contaminated he or she is by what is already thought to be good, the better. But, best case, she will want a sprinkling of classics – Schiller, Ibsen, O’Neill – so that new plays may be seen in the context of old, with the aim of both paying tribute to a tradition and advancing it.”

On employment numbers: “The National has roughly twice as many employees as it had when it opened on the South Bank in 1976 in order to do fewer productions. Many of them never look up from their desks. They are forced to stare all day at computers, ticking boxes on forms sent to them by the Arts Council.”

On the RSC: “Les Misérables” turned subsidised theatre into a shouty seedbed.”

On touring: “The abandonment of touring by our best-funded companies is a major scandal which goes unremarked year after year...The Ferryman, Consent, Ink and Mosquitoes should all be out on the road right now, so the whole country can see them. The work of Newcastle’s Live Theatre and Theatr Clwyd should be regularly coming to town.”

On workshops and readings: “Plays submitted will be read. This will be guaranteed. But out-loud readings will be extremely rare, and only with the writer’s consent. A young playwright complained to me recently that she had been commissioned to write a play for a well-known address. When she finished it, the artistic director said it needed a workshop. The dramatist thought it didn’t. The writer’s wishes were overruled and the workshop went ahead, evidence of nothing but the management’s bad faith. In some theatres, workshops and readings are regularly deployed as stalling devices by artistic directors who pretend they are interested in new plays, but who use uncertainty and hesitation in staging them as a means of extolling and abusing their power. At the Playhouse, workshops and readings will never be dangled as hurdles a writer has to jump.”

On site-specific productions: “If a director can produce a very strong argument, then she or he will be allowed to present a play away from the Playhouse. But this will not happen often. When Patrice Chereau staged In the Solitude of the Cotton Fields in a disused factory outside Paris, then the dust and the light made Koltès’s text sparkle. Jerzy Grotowski’s use of an empty film studio for Stanisław Wyspiański’s play Akropolis added to the desolation of that extraordinary evocation of the concentration camps. But gimmicky stagings inside gasholders or behind supermarkets will be discouraged. There are sound democratic reasons for theatre usually taking place in spaces where everyone can see, hear, think and feel together.”

What's It All For: “the effect of the Playhouse will be to cheer everyone up. No, it will not save lives, like a great hospital. But it will restore spirits, like a great sunset. It will be genuinely collaborative, proving to the country that things we do together have a quality all of their own. Most of all, it will express a trust in theatre itself as a unique form which does something profound that no other form can. The Playhouse will not suck up to other disciplines in a desperate attempt to make itself trendy. It will use dance and music judiciously, as a way of reinforcing its own effects, but never to obliterate word and image. Nor will it ever allow itself to be reduced to a gibbering variation on galleried performance art. There will be no self-referential evenings of angst that neurotically question the value and nature of the form. It will be staffed by people who have confidence in that form, who love it, and who are, in the experience of their own lives, benefiting immeasurably from its special power.”

Is the article to be agreed with? The answer is no, but agreement is not the point. It is sufficient, like theatre itself, that it be full-blooded, richly textured and felt. There is the core paradox of Hare. The satirist Craig Brown loves him as a target. As my review of his memoir put it “It is a truism of Hare that the state has been of kindness to the author who stridently dislikes it so much.” But “My Ideal Theatre” bubbles with reference: Gill, Gaskell, Brook, Planchon, Ashcroft, Dunbar, Schofield, Churchill and many more.

Few articles last more than their season. “My Ideal Theatre” is worth the reading. Uncharacteristically for the medium, there is more sense than spleen, generosity than grump in the 137 comments that follow it.

It may be read in full at:

The memoir “the Blue Touch Paper” is reviewed at:

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
14 June 2018


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