Audiences have changed - playwrights have to change with them

Journal columnist and Newcastle headteacher Bernard Trafford on why there's still much to enjoy at the theatre

©ALASTAIR MUIR Publicity handout Billy Elliot the Musical at the Victoria Palace Theatre, photo by Alastair Mui
Publicity handout Billy Elliot the Musical at the Victoria Palace Theatre, photo by Alastair Mui

Apparently we’re getting too stupid for the theatre. Playwright Tom Stoppard says so. He’s cross because audiences for his latest play, The Hard Problem, don’t understand his literary allusions. He keeps having to re-write it, cutting those clever bits, because his audiences are just too thick to appreciate the intellectual jokes.

Others have entered the debate. According to Times theatre critic Kevin Maher, “two West End heavyweights, Patricia Hodge and Janet Suzman, have also castigated the swinish hoard for being undereducated”. Hmm.

To be fair to them, it does sometimes appear that there’s less and less serious drama to be seen in theatres: instead, increasing numbers of frothy, lightweight “smash-hit” musicals sell out night after night in the West End.

I don’t entirely accept either criticism.

Stoppard’s complaint is arrogant. He may have been writing plays with more erudite jokes in them 30 years ago: perhaps they suited audiences then. But humour, social and cultural attitudes and just about everything else have changed since: if he wants to entertain (and get bums on seats in the theatre), he needs to consider his contemporary audience, get with the times, and stop complaining.

What about the second accusation? Is theatre dumbing down? It can seem so. Certainly many stage musicals in London’s West End (also seen on tour in Sunderland and Newcastle) are movie-adaptations, not original works.

In addition, so-called “karaoke musicals” dominate: in these, a flimsy story is flung together to connect a succession of classic pop covers. Thus the tribute to the band Queen is We Will Rock You: Mamma Mia revives Abba songs; and all kinds of other shows (Jersey Boys, Save the Last Dance for Me) are synthetic concoctions relying on music and nostalgia, largely eschewing plot, drama or characterisation.

There is a bit of the snob in me that dislikes being talked down to. I hate films, TV programmes, and stage shows written to a formula, with content and spectacle slotted in to fit.

Yet even that argument falters: working a formula is arguably what crime-writers do, not least the immortal Agatha Christie. Bernard Cornwell’s hugely popular historical novels, the Sharpe books and the series based around Alfred the Great and Uhtred of Bebbanburg (Bamburgh), are shamelessly formula-based, built around a hero-outsider, someone set apart: they make great reading.

In the end, if we had no intelligent drama, no broader range to choose from, I might fear some dumbing down.

But there is fantastic, ground-breaking drama, if you look for it. In Newcastle there’s new and experimental work all the time at Live Theatre and Northern Stage.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time filled two weeks at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal earlier this month. It’s a sparkling dramatisation of a thought-provoking book, intellectually intriguing, funny, entertaining and visually stunning.

Overcoming my dislike of stage adaptations of films, I loved the West End hits Brief Encounter and The 39 Steps: I saw both in Newcastle. They make hilarious theatre by caricaturing some of the dated aspects of those old films.

My favourite film-to-stage transformation remains Billy Elliot: its tenth anniversary performance was screened live across the world from London’s Apollo Theatre in September and is now out on DVD. A clever, thought-provoking movie has grown into one of the most powerful stage shows I’ve witnessed, full of raw emotion and dramatic irony, contrasting art and aspiration with the grinding misery of the miners’ strike and the death of the Easington pit.

Moreover, it shows a fresh audience every day just what young people can achieve, the 11-year-old leads leaving their audience gasping in awe at their acting, singing and (above all) dancing.

So is there a problem? No. Playwrights like Stoppard should meet their audience half-way and remember that, if we don’t like a show, we don’t have to go to it.

The customer is always right. So is the audience (well, most of the time).

@bernardtrafford

Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal.

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