WhatsOnStage Logo

Richard Brings Audience Onstage

WhatsOnStage logo
One of the reasons the Young Vic is my favourite London theatre is that, under David Lan's artistic directorship, there's a steady stream of great productions by Richard Jones.

Jones has directed Pirandello's Six Characters, Hobson's Choice, Brecht's The Good Soul of Szechuan and Annie Get Your Gun (the last two with extraordinary, brilliant performances by Jane Horrocks). But perhaps none of these shows suited him so well as Gogol's Government Inspector which opened last night.

Gogol's combination of satire, grotesquerie and surrealism meet their perfect match in the talents of Jones, designer Miriam Buether, costume designer Nicky Gillibrand and lighting wizard Mimi Jordan Sherin, who somehow changes the livid colouring on the insipid wallpaper without anyone noticing.

What you do notice, if you take your seat in time, is half the audience starting the play by walking over the set and through the cloth at the front of the stage. Again, Jones has subtly reconfigured the Young Vic so that you're not quite sure of your whereabouts.

We knew Julian Barratt was going to play the Mayor -- and does so with a remarkable fluency and assurance in what is, in effect, a stage debut -- but we weren't sure if his Mighty Boosh partner, Noel Fielding, would turn up. But there he was, streaming Bambisexually through the front door of the dacha in a throng (no, dear, not a thong) with Georgina Brown and Michael Billington.

Then David Lan made an announcement: a little bad news, then good news. The actor playing the schools superintendant, Simon Muller, had had an accident in rehearsals and injured himself. So the actor playing the schools superintendant tonight would be... Simon Muller with a crutch.

I had been primed for all this audience involvement earlier in the week at a conference organised by the John Lyon's Charity for funders, educationalists, teachers and arts administrators at the National Portrait Gallery.

Discussing aspiration and opportunities for young people in the arts, two of the delegates got us to our feet to literally act out the conference title of Breaking Down Barriers.

First, Suzi Digby, founder and principal of the Voices Foundation, got us to sing and play pit-a-pat with our immediate neighbour. Then Luke Williams, an inspirational actor/teacher working with the National Theatre studio and primary school children in Camden and Brent, got us to brush up our dance moves in the opening sea storm scene of The Tempest.

Everything that matters in art and education stems from this one simple human activity, we were reminded: communication. Things get done, and things get done better, when people do them together.

And collaboration in the theatre is a two-tier operation: between artists themselves, and then between artists and audiences. The great issue in arts education is striking the happy mean between what the artist wants to do and what the schoolchildren need to have. And then funding it properly.

But as Luke Williams rightly said, nothing happens at all without the vanity and dedication of the artist in the first place.
It's a shame that the audience at the Royal Court for the first night of Chicken Soup With Barley didn't have the story of how Arnold Wesker wrote the play, and the struggle he had to put it on, in their programme texts: the rapturous first night applause would surely have led to what playwright Martin Crimp whispered to Nicholas Wright, sitting in front of him, should happen next... a curtain call taken by the author.

The Wesker Trilogy was given at the Court in 1960, and immediately became a defining event in the history of post-War drama. The first play, Chicken Soup With Barley, was first rejected by the commissioning theatre, as was the second play, Roots.

Joan Plowright had already told Wesker that she would go anywhere to play Beatie Bryant in Roots, but I don't think she was banking on Coventry. Still, that's where she went, before storming Sloane Square as the young Norfolk girl who finds her own voice at last in defiance of her social and domestic conditioning.

Almost everything we discussed at the John Lyon's conference could have been illustrated and corroborated in a performance of Wesker's plays, which are all about human dignity and making a difference. Which is why they are so powerful and moving.

I passionately agree with Crimp. I think Wesker should have been called to the stage after Chicken Soup. This was a very special, very moving, homecoming for him, and for an audience old enough to know how significant his plays were and indeed remain.


Tagged in this Story