With Valentine’s Day hoving into view, I find myself thinking of how difficult it is to choose a piece of theatre that is actually suitable for a date night. Once your relationship is up and running, you can subject to it to any amount of the stresses and thought-provoking strains that the stage is capable of providing. But in the early stages of romance, the wrong choice can spell disaster.
I remember once sitting behind a couple, who had clearly just met, at Tennessee Williams’s excoriatingly strange Not About Nightingales, a prison drama in which rebellious inmates are heated to death in a steam room. As the play progressed, you could see the date turn sour; the intensity of the action was just too great for blossoming interest to survive.
Shakespeare might seem the answer until you remember that his lovers have a habit of ending up dead
That was a particularly adventurous choice, but the trouble with theatre is that it thrives on conflict and difficulty. Even a musical as uplifting as Dreamgirls pivots on a perfidious love rat who sells his star down the river because she doesn’t look the part; Beautiful is another feel-good show in which the collapse of a relationship is sharply portrayed. And as for Half a Sixpence, though love does eventually run smooth, the travails it goes through on the way are enough to make the stoutest heart sink.
As for the classics: well, you might think an evening at Hedda Gabler, one of the hottest tickets in London, would be enough to impress. But you’d likely emerge, chilled to the core at the capacity of the human spirit to be broken and bowed. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and David Baddiel’s My Family Not the Sitcom are full of the complications of family life; The Glass Menagerie breaks the heart every time you see it. In The White Devil one-time lovers kill each other for gain. Name me a play in which marriage is presented as a contented and sustaining state. I can’t think of one.
If you are planning an early romantic outing on Valentine’s Day, I suggest a nice dinner somewhere or a walk in the park
Shakespeare might seem the answer until you remember that lovers in Shakespeare have a habit of ending up dead (cf Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra) or profoundly confused by their sexuality (Twelfth Night) or so morally blind that they destroy one another (Othello, Hamlet and The Winter’s Tale). Beatrice and Benedick do get together in Much Ado, but only after she has issued the dire challenge ‘Kill Claudio’ – who has of course jilted Hero in the cruellest and most public manner.
I could go on. But I won’t. If you are planning an early romantic outing on Valentine’s Day, I suggest a nice dinner somewhere or a walk in the park. Wait to take your love to the theatre until you both know each other well enough to enjoy whatever theatre throws at you, without worrying what the other one is thinking. Then it is the most perfect place in the world to be together, full of the richness of life. Until then, its very capacity to reflect all shades of the world around it, makes it difficult terrain.