This blog will see me posting regularly on all aspects of UK and international theatre, inspired by what I’m seeing, reading, listening to and talking about with colleagues, both theatre makers and journalists. If something I write here piques your curiosity, excites your anger or strikes a particular chord, please comment and I’ll do my best to respond.
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With that little bit of housekeeping out of the way, it's time to get down to business. Having spent almost three weeks out of the country in February, with all thoughts of theatre firmly banished from my brain, by the time of my visit to the Riverside Studios last week I felt like I was returning to the art form refreshed and hungry.
The show I saw in Hammersmith that evening, Trollope in Barsetshire (the review of which you can see here), turned out to be a fascinating reintroduction after my time away, because although it takes place in a theatre, involves an actor, a director, a set, and lighting, the show isn’t really theatre at all.
I enjoyed the evening very much, but couldn’t get away from the feeling that what I was seeing was essentially an excuse for a brilliant actor to strut his stuff, as well as a celebration of a great novelist. I got the same feeling when watching Brian Cox do his one-man Lolita at the National Theatre in 2009 (read Michael Coveney's review of the production here). Both Cox and Edward Fox are fantastically talented, of course, and Vladimir Nabokov and Anthony Trollope have produced some of the finest works of literature in the English language, but does one man reciting passages from a novel really count as theatre?
I’ve blogged about what I see as the challenges of one-person shows in the past (see Going it Alone from August 2010), but this is a slightly different problem I think. Theatre can and should take many and diverse forms, and anyone attempting to set limits to those forms is on thin ice (myself included – and it’s entirely likely that I’ll go crashing through that ice at some stage), but I feel that for a piece of performance to qualify as ‘theatre’, it must offer more than the sort of two-dimensional representation seen in Fox’s Trollope in Barsetshire and Cox’s Lolita. Please note that I mean ‘two-dimensional’ in terms of the format of these shows, not the success of the actors’ performances.
This is not to say that one-person storytelling shows are by definition non-theatrical, just that for such a piece to succeed as ‘theatre’, it needs to be created with a theatre audience (rather than a lone reader) in mind from the very start. It must also, I think, take that audience on a journey so that those watching the show are in a different place emotionally, intellectually or morally, at the end of a performance than they were at its beginning.
Trollope achieves this in the context of novel-writing, but even an actor as talented as Fox is going to struggle to single-handedly bring to theatrical life something that was designed to live purely on the page and in the reader's imagination, particularly if the material is being presented in its undiluted prose form. As a fan of Anthony Trollope and of 19th-century literature in general, I'm thrilled that there are theatre makers enthusiastic enough about his work to have brought it to the stage; I only wish they had done it properly and made a piece a theatre in the process.