There's No Business Like Old BusinessDate: 5 November 2001
Mark Shenton reports on the current trend for producers - from the National to the West End - to seek refuge in revivals of past hits, but wonders where the theatre of the future will come from as a result.
Take a look around the West End at the moment and one thing becomes abundantly clear: the biggest hits of the season, both critically as well as commercially, are revivals, namely Noel Coward's Private Lives (at the Albery), and Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate (which opened last week at the Victoria Palace).
Support & Neglect
Familiarity, apparently, breeds content. Not only do these two shows, coincidentally, share the essence of the same plot (with warring former lovers finding new lovers only to revert, in the end, to their original soulmates), but both have in fact been seen often in London before.
Coward's 1930 play - a hardy perennial - turned up as recently as a 1999 production at the National Theatre, and nine years earlier, in another staging starring Joan Collins. Both of these mountings of Private Lives, however, were definite duds. Thus, part of the relief of welcoming the comedy back so soon, in an effervescent new staging by Howard Davies that is wittily designed and superbly acted, is to expunge the memories of the earlier ones.
Meanwhile, the dazzling new production of Kiss Me Kate, first seen in New York in 1999, was Broadway's first-ever revival of the show in the half-century since it originally premiered there. Now it's been imported to London, but here, the show has made regular appearances, including an RSC production at the Old Vic (and then Savoy) in 1987 and another at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park in 1997. This time out, it gets its best staging yet. But as I commented in my review of the new production on this site, "It's also a little disappointing that support is so vigorously forthcoming for an old 1948 Broadway warhorse like this, even as new shows - the revivals of the future - are neglected."
In a season which has seen the closure, in quick succession, of The Beautiful Game, Notre Dame De Paris, Closer to Heaven, Peggy Sue Got Married and The Witches of Eastwick, the question is worth asking. Not all of those were worth supporting, of course, and it's arguable that several - performing weakly even before first foot-and-mouth and then the US terrorist attacks diminished audiences even further - were lost causes regardless. Ditto such duff plays as Mahler's Conversion and Antarctica that have met swift demises in the West End, but would undoubtedly have failed even in a healthier theatrical economy.
To fill the vacuum, what seems to pass for a new play in the current climate is instead a previously unproduced Coward, Star Quality, and now not one but two JB Priestley reruns. This means the return, yet again, of the inevitable An Inspector Calls in Stephen Daldry's still epic production and Dangerous Corner, last seen at the Whitehall a few years ago and now in a new production via the West Yorkshire Playhouse at the Garrick. Even the Donmar Warehouse, which likes to see itself at the cutting edge of adventurous theatre, has presented back-to-back revivals this year. The return of Sam Shepard's 1986 A Lie of the Mind was followed by its current revival of Lilian Hellman's 1939 drama The Little Foxes, and Peter Nichols' 1977 musical play, Privates on Parade to follow.
Safety in the Past
But is the revival of the revival the answer? The National - one theatre that should lead the way, not follow it - offers yet another musical revival this Christmas by announcing Trevor Nunn's latest journey down memory lane, Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1949 show South Pacific, to be presented in a straight five-month run in the Olivier from December to April. It follows Nunn's blockbuster stagings of the 1956 musical My Fair Lady (now safely ensconced at Drury Lane) and the 1943 one Oklahoma! (now Broadway-bound for an opening there next March).
Meanwhile on the plays front, Harold Pinter revives his own No Man's Land at the Lyttelton later this month; it was originally premiered by the National (then at the Old Vic) in 1975 before transferring to the Lyttelton in its inaugural season. Elsewhere, the National's revival of Noises Off continues at the Piccadilly and has just opened on Broadway. All of which may be doing wonders for the National's balance books (currently running at a significant deficit); as it is for any wary West End producer shying sheepishly away the risks of new work to transfer such shows to a commercial run.
But how useful is it for the National to be using money from the public purse to actually revisit shows that the commercial sector has already revisited themselves with each of those shows in the last 22 years? And how does this timid, safe response to theatremaking and theatregoing, from producers that put them on to the audiences that indulge them, serve art and ultimately artists?
"Audiences," points out veteran producer Duncan C Weldon, "know what it costs to go to a musical today, and they want to make sure they're going to see a good one." But good musicals and new ones are not mutually exclusive qualities; and taste needs to be fashioned as well as accommodated. The art of good producing is to give the public not only what they want (which is lazy though lucrative), but what they didn't know they wanted.
Future in the Present
That's where the theatre of the future comes from. But theatremaking as it is currently constituted is an expensive process, both to put on and to promote. And it has become its own worst enemy in creating expectations of providing a lavish, one-off event. As one of the producers of next year's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Michael Rose, has commented, "An exciting evening isn't enough. A show has got to be an event."
But perhaps it doesn't need to be one at all: the real essence of theatre is communicating. That's what Marie Jones' Stones in His Pockets is all about; and it does so with just two actors, a plank and some passion. And because it does that, so simply and exquisitely, it has become an event. It's a new show, too, not a revival. There's a lesson there somewhere.