Theatre in Wales

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Director Treatment of Authors: Objections

Radio Arts Feature

Behind the Scenes: Robert Icke , Radio 4 & iPlayer , May 15, 2019
Radio Arts Feature by Behind the Scenes: Robert Icke One of Wales' most creative theatre artists was beneficiary of a production at the state theatre of Franconia in 2016. The treatment of her play, one of some moral seriousness, was given an unusual treatment at the hands of the director. The deviation continued to such a degree, that she was forced to fall back on a creator's last sanction; to declare that the rights would be withdrawn without fidelity to her work.

David Hare's “the Absence of War” is a realist account of the strains, as he perceived it, within the Labour Party in 1990. It is a lesser work by some way than “Racing Demon” but was given a spirited revival and tour by Headlong in 2015 (reviewed here 5th May 2015.)

In France Hare saw a production of his play which fictionalises Neil Kinnock and John Smith. Two elderly actors waltzed to an accordion. A procession of masked figures appeared holding umbrellas to protect them from stage rain. In the shadows the Queen appeared to be present. The playwright, too courteous or too late to pull the rights, enquired as to its connection to his work.

“Ah, that is what we in France call “le concepte”, replied the director. “What do you call that in English?” What indeed? This tension is at the heart of the latest “Behind the Scenes” on Robert Icke.

First personal experience: I have seen three of the director's productions. “The Oresteia” won best production acclaim of 2015, an award deserved because it was. Icke's “Uncle Vanya” was mesmeric. The most commercially successful, “Mary Stuart” which played the West End and toured, was good. But Terry Hands' production for Theatre Clwyd was stronger, with more nuance, menace and politics to it.

The Icke personal story is without a doubt remarkable. The upbringing in Stockton-on-Tees was an hour and a half to a producing theatre in Sheffield or Newcastle-on-Tyne. The Gala Theatre in Durham was an hour away. Cultural life was video gaming and cinema. The catalyst for a life in theatre was seeing Kenneth Branagh as Richard III.

But like another “Behind the Scenes”, reviewed below February 15th 2018*, the programme gives over-prominence to the producer view. The voice-over is pally in tone, referring to “Robert.” A commentator from outside the company is allowed in early with “the play is about truth and lies and the difference between truth and reality. In the age of social media and mob mentality all of that seems incredibly live in terms of modern debate.”

Nor as I recall it. The last time I saw the play- (Peter Hall, magnificent, David Threlfall as Werle, Alex Jennings Ekdal)- Ibsen in 1884 was writing on a theme that Gerhart Hauptmann was doing in “Vor Sonnenaufgang” in the same decade. Moral idealism results in wreckage and pain. That is not just topical, a less interesting and a lesser purpose anyhow, than perennial. The preference for virtue of intent over pragmatism of result does service to neither the arts nor the politics in Wales.

But beneath the promotional flavour of the programme there is a current of discomfort. Early on, the voice-over slips in “this classic is radically reimagined and partially rewritten with a contemporary audience in mind.” That “rewritten” is the nub of it. Michael Billington makes a late entry (22:40).

“My deep objection is to the idea of Robert Icke becoming a kind of auteur or pseudo-author adding a layer on top of Ibsen. My argument is very simple. Ibsen was a great dramatist. Ibsen's imagination is superior to that of Robert Icke. Ibsen is not some poor fledgling writer who needs the help of Robert Icke. It is Robert Icke who should be subservient to Ibsen.”

Billington is full of praise for the director, his extraordinary visual sense, the casting, the performances. But he ends with “Let him go and write his own if he wants to write a play.”

Robert Icke is not a figure in the theatre of Wales. But the dialectic at the centre of the programme, for which he is subject, is. There is an issue of the relationship between national broadcaster and theatre. The BBC has clout, but in the arts it tempers criticism. It would never adopt this policy towards public life. It would not treat politics in this vein, and we would be better off with debate.

*As a postscript the writing of this comment prompted a reading of the last “Behind the Scenes” article. So many words flow weekly that a reviewer forgets most of it. The previous article below is frank, tending perhaps to harsh, yet nonetheless appears to be accurate. Certainly the word “Rhyl”, which appears in the last line of paragraph 6, is replaceable in 2019 with “Newport.”

“Behind the Scenes: Robert Icke” can be heard at

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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