As English Touring Theatre launches its search for the ‘nation's favourite play', the winners of which will be staged by the company next year, I'm predictably led to speculate about what might win the most votes.
As discussed by Michael Coveney earlier, ETT's survey is sure to attract the usual suspects; it's a safe bet to assume that Shakespeare will be healthily represented, while Jez Butterworth's sell-out hit Jerusalem immediately leaps out as a more recent contender. The survey website itself offers voters a few pointers, suggesting works by the likes of Terence Rattigan, Joe Orton and – naturally – Shakespeare.
Speculation has quickly taken hold of Twitter, unsurprisingly prompting some deliberately controversial suggestions. Mark Ravenhill quickly tweeted asking his followers to vote for his seminal 90s play Shopping and Fucking, no doubt revelling in the stir that such an outcome would provoke, to which Unlimited Theatre's Jon Spooner replied that he would rather see ETT attempt to stage Shunt's Dance Bear Dance. A quick filter through the online noise, meanwhile, throws up titles such as Noises Off, Arcadia, Equus and The History Boys, to name just a few.
Of course, there is an extent to which the final choices will be essentially arbitrary. The rules state that plays must be original English language works, eliminating musicals, adaptations and translations from the running, but this still leaves a huge scope of drama from any period of time. By pitting Renaissance tragedy against 20th century social realism, Restoration comedy against postmodern experimentation, fair comparisons are virtually impossible. Genre and period become somewhat irrelevant, with simple familiarity likely to win out.
But perhaps, rather than giving Hamlet yet another outing or asking some poor actor to fill Mark Rylance's voluminous shoes as Jonny ‘Rooster' Byron, audiences might treat this as an opportunity to air some of our less celebrated theatrical masterpieces. British theatre culture, particularly in recent decades, can be worryingly throwaway; new plays, unless hugely successful, will often only receive one production, which quickly solidifies into the definitive version. In many cases, we never get a chance to see another creative team get their hands on the text. What might it be like to see a non-naturalistic, symbolically loaded reimagining of Spur of the Moment? Or a revival of Three Kingdoms minus the animal heads?
I also, like Spooner, would love to see some surprises on the list. Though I suspect ETT are looking for plays in the traditionally accepted sense, it would be fascinating to seize this survey as a way of challenging what we understand by the term ‘play'. Work in this country tends to be split cleanly – and often falsely – between ‘text-based' and supposedly ‘non-text-based' or devised theatre, but I'd be just as interested to see another version of, say, Action Hero's new show Hoke's Bluff as I would be to watch another director's interpretation of Jerusalem.
And beyond contesting some of the assumptions of British theatre, ETT's survey offers a rare chance to take the theatrical pulse of today's audiences. Just as revivals or plays set in the past often say as much about the time of their staging, the favourites that emerge from this search could be telling in terms of current theatrical tastes. Hamlet might be timeless, but which plays capture the popular imagination right now? Maybe, by straying slightly from the heavily trodden path of old and modern classics, voters can prompt a genuinely searching interrogation of British theatre and the place of its plays in today's culture.
Vote for your favourite at myfavouriteplay.com
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