Theatre in Wales

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2017's Critical Dispute: Director Misogyny or Not

Theatre: the Talk in England

Playwright and Academic at Loggerheads , London Theatre , December-11-17
Theatre: the Talk in England by Playwright and Academic at Loggerheads The relationship of film to theatre has turned one hundred and eighty degrees over a short time. For long it went in one direction, Hollywood from its early days buying into the hits of Broadway. It shifted around the time Kneehigh took a Powell-Pressburger master-work for the stage. A Jacques Demy film classic as a kind of stage musical was a step too far and went down in a sea of red ink. A film name is another route to pre-branded theatre. Films from Rossellini and Bergman have been remade for London stages. David Hare cared not for what he saw on the Barbican stage, not least for its treatment of women.

Hare was not the first writer to deplore what he viewed as misogyny. The Stage published an opinion piece by Natasha Tripney on 5th January with the title “Five Things I’d like to see in theatre in 2017”. Her first had a prescience to it and was titled “Stop the Sexism”.

Tripney picked on some of theatre's most golden stars. Rupert Goold in the Almeida “Richard III” had had Ralph Fiennes’ Richard raping Aislin McGuckin’s Elizabeth. “It felt ugly, brutal and unnecessary” said Tripney, “it tainted the whole production.” Jamie Lloyd had Doctor Faustus doing the same. The National Theatre's “Hedda Gabler” had a character spitting on Ruth Wilson before her face was rubbed into the floor. “It’s an incredibly unpleasant directorial trope” was Tripney's verdict “I simply don’t believe there wasn’t another way of depicting Hedda’s predicament without the audience having to watch yet another woman twitch and writhe and cry.”

The debate early in 2017 that David Hare prompted was caused by an interview in a book. “What Playwrights Talk About” was published by Yale University Press in April. The key phrase picked on was a bacillus “beginning to infect” the theatre of Britain. The cause of infection was an unidentified director from continental Europe. “Now we’re heading in Britain towards an over-aestheticised European theatre. We’ve got all those people called ‘theatre makers’ – God help us, what a word! – coming in and doing director’s theatre where you camp up classic plays and you cut them and you prune them around.”

Responses were varied. Some wondered if it mattered that much whether a production varied occasionally from expectation. It matters if a director sells tickets on the name of a known great of theatre. Wales is usually far from the storm's centre but a production of “the Cherry Orchard” at the hands of a Portuguese had a Taliesin audience assailing the box office for refunds. “Gutted of narrative, colour, emotion, and most of its character” was the view on this site in October 2010.

David Lan of the Young Vic responded to Hare interestingly. He recounted a lunch with Jon Fosse, the second-most-performed Norwegian playwright, where the talk turned to Ibsen. Fosse replied: “The Germans understand Ibsen, the French, the Dutch. Only you English get him wrong. You think he’s some kind of progressive, an artistic social worker. No. Ibsen is the poet of destruction.” It is our deficient understanding. The review on this site of “Hedda Gabler”, which mirrored much audience comment, was less to do with the depiction of women than inconsistency, blocking and the use of music.

Exeunt published an 1100-word open letter addressed to Hare. The author took exception to the critiques of theatre-makers as she had written a book called “Theatre-Making”. “As a dramaturg and a teacher” ran the letter “I am concerned that I might be deemed an infectious body. Call me paranoid, but I can assure you that in a post-Brexit climate one must take any such potential charges extremely seriously.”

She makes a distinction of terms. “First, the terminology “director” and “theatre-maker” are not the same. In Britain, director is someone who “‘puts a text on its feet”. In various European contexts the director is someone who renders the play into the multifarious language of the stage. “Theatre-maker’ is someone who does not want to self-identify as just a writer or just a director or just a composer or just a designer, or just a performer, because they can do more than one of those things equally well.”

Hare's interview in print named no names. “Interestingly, I sat in Hedda Gabler yesterday wondering why Van Hove and Marber” wrote Exeunt “were being apparently so faithful to the details of Ibsen’s text.” Possibly because it is the National Theatre advertising Ibsen to audiences. “. ..when we no longer live in a world where we are waited on by servants, where we wear socially appropriate hats or where women marry for status because they don’t feel they have another choice, we don’t call each other by our surnames, and we don’t go around carrying the only printed copy of our life’s work with us.”

Ibsen's offence seems to be is that he is so not now. To which in rebuttal Simon Callow said it all thirty years back in “Being An Actor”. “What is valuable about dramatic literature is that it constitutes a living record of other lives and other worlds. It is live history: and by failing to take the pains to discover the Atlantis that it represents, we turn our back on history, on the richness of culture and the lessons of the past.”

Exeunt had no problems with the assault on Hedda. “But then the fourth act happened, and Judge Brack proceeded to spill tomato juice from a can he’d just opened all over Hedda’s silk white camisole and to rub it into her hair.... I wouldn’t call this disrespecting the text, I would call it ‘reading the text with one’s full intellectual faculties switched on. Van Hove certainly has no interest in hacking and rewriting any text he touches for some spurious reasons of his own. On the contrary, he reads the texts he directs with X-Ray precision. He embeds clues both blatantly and stealthily and he sends you home rewinding the whole thing, trying to work out the pattern of his own reading.”

That seems to say it. It's not primarily about a great dramatist from history at all. It's about the director. The audience stumps up its fifty quid or more so as “to work out the pattern of his own reading.” The Exeunt-er ends by appealing to Hare the writer. “Surely any writer would want a director who can make their work live on beyond the possibilities of the writer’s own imagination?”

Dispute is good for culture, evidence that people care. Other controversies smouldered in 2017. Emma Rice's application for funding went well but garnered a quotient of complaint. But she is a known hyper-talent and her document of application was long and painstaking in detail. Punchdrunk geared up a step. The company has had £676,694 in funding over 2012-2015. In 2017 it priced 864 tickets at £110 a pair with none for any media. Many a blogger thought this steep. If the press wanted to be there they could pitch in and try for tickets like anyone else. The Evening Standard did just that and reported an event that was okay but over-long and under-shaped. Companies rise and companies cease to rise.

David Hare meanwhile has been assailing the establishment for half a century. The new orthodoxy of “infection”- anti-drama, apolitical, deploring of comedy, infatuated with electronics- was up for attack again when he wrote the diary slot in the New Statesman of 29th September. “Most director-devised evenings” he asserted “offer common wisdom telling you what you already know. Such stuff is not theatre, it's piety...politically reactionary and misogynistic. The coinage “theatre-maker” is as ugly it is clumsy.”

A world where we all agreed would be a duller one by far.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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