Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Homing in on a Good Night Out

National Theatre: Comment

John McGrath “A Good Night Out” , Eyre Methuen , May 3, 2010
National Theatre: Comment by John McGrath “A Good Night Out” After two and three-quarter years the gates are open and the chariot is out on the road. The first two productions have revealed two things. Firstly the company is riding two horses. In attempting to span theatre that is both demotic and esoteric in its appeal it is certainly aspiring to a breadth of audience. It is hard to launch any new venture let alone one with the weight of “national” to carry. It looks as if it is going good. A proviso should be added that I am its beneficiary, being member of its New Critics programme.

The second obvious observation is how the critics have divided on national lines. Production One evoked a variety of response that followed a heuristic. Enthusiasm for the production was proportional to the distance from its setting. London liked it whereas the Valleys-raised reviewer was unexcited. The position was reversed with Production Two. “This show is past its return date” thought the Guardian of the Volcano and WNO collaboration. “The evening seems paralysed by the tension between not wanting to appear luddite and providing a fitting requiem for lost words, stories and libraries. Borrower beware!” Even a commentator on the site thought the review had a mite too much acid to it.

I saw cadences of James Callaghan, Aneurin Bevan, Bala College, Borges' metaphor of the world as library. But then we all see different things. But the reference to the other John McGrath (1935-2002) in the launch is unambiguous. Uninviting weekend weather is a prompt to revisit exactly what the director of 7:84 was espousing a generation back.

“A Good Night” dates from 1981. Its subtitle is “Popular Theatre: Audience, Class and Form”. It has another subtitle in the more forbidding “Contemporary Theatre and the Mediation of Reality”. That is indicator that the setting is an academic one. But McGrath's language is expressive and spoken. “I am here today...every Wednesday” he writes. Even if it were not a guide to the inspiration for the National Theatre of Wales the short book is a bracing, clear-cut guide to a significant director's values as put to work.

Reflections like these, he says, can become “autobiographical, egocentric, even at times megalomaniac”. He lays down the gauntlet in his first words. As for the lectures' title “I could have called them “Telling the Story” because that's what theatre does.” There are brickbats handed out. He thinks the late plays of Edward Bond “smack more of posterity-hunting than theatre-making.” He dislikes David Storey and “the Contractor”. He denounces journalists and TV executives whose names have passed into history's mist. But these are digressions from what he likes.

He promotes directness. “A working-class audience likes to know exactly what you are trying to do or say to it.” “Working class audiences like laughs”. But with a proviso. “Comedy has to be sharper, more perceptive and more deeply related to their lives.” As an audience they “like music in shows, live and lively...they like melody above all.”

The content and the method are clear. McGrath also pinpoints what it is all for. “Theatre is the place where the life of a society is shown in public to that society...where that society's assumptions are exhibited and tested, its values are scrutinised, its myths are validated, and its traumas become emblems of its reality rather than a place to experience a rarefied artistic sensibility in an aesthetic void...It shows the interaction of human beings and social forces.”

Audiences can laugh but decent comedy is sharp. “Any serious piece of theatre...questions all assumptions...scrutinises contemporary reality with a sense of history and without fear of engaging in politics.” Theatre is about audience and he lists “the specific qualities in a work that allow it to pass from one mind to another. These qualities are to do with this emotional struggle-trajectory, this playing out of the deeply felt, the profoundly personal, through the other layers of theatre: through observed, social manners dissected, through conflict of classes and interests and so on.”

As for those tempted to turn away from those for whom theatre is intended no director has used a language to equal: “love of can be a critical love, an aggressive love, but if it turns to indifference, cynicism, hate, or simply exploitation, then the theatre-maker will turn into a solipsist or a psychopath.”

There is always opportunity; that of a damp weekend is occasion for a book well worth the revisit.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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