At present, musicals dominate the scene, few are 'new', the majority having been on for some time: Les Miserables apparently is the world's longest running musical; many others are revivals of past successes like Carousel and Oliver, or are musicals from successful films like Billy Elliott and Priscilla Queen of the Desert. This last category seems to me to be a comparatively recent development.
In drama, veteran plays and revivals also dominate the theatre scene: The Mousetrap at St. Martins is in its fifty-seventh year, The Woman in Black in its "twentieth terrifying year". There are quite a few revivals of plays by well known dramatists like Alan Bennett, Brian Friel, Alan Ayckbourne, Joe Orton, J. B Priestley and Arthur Miller - the last two perhaps counting as classics as the plays of these dramatists are set texts at schools.
Although the National Theatre and the RSC at the Novello continue to present Shakespeare and classical dramas their representation in the London West End is small compared with what was on offer fifty or sixty years ago.
There are very few new plays to be found in the West End at present, notably Plague over England by the theatre critic, Nicholas de Jongh (in my collection is a programme for play Worm in the Night written by Nicholas when he was an undergraduate at University College). There are even fewer plays that I can find by new dramatists.
New drama, it seems, is now to be found outside the West End – the Almeida, the Donmar, the National, or outside London. The National Theatre continue to be innovative and adventurous: for example in dramatising Michael Morpurgo's book War Horse into the stunning production, stunning because the creation of puppet horses transforms this play into a purely theatrical experience which one cannot imagine being translated into any other media; reviving and putting on new plays which are possibly controversial like the present revival of Death and the King's Horseman by Wole Soyinka, and Richard Bean's England People Very Nice.
Comparison: theatre of the 50s, 60s and 70s
It has to be admitted, I suppose, that there have always been laments for the state of contemporary theatre, and for the regrettable ‘taste of the town’ - upon which, perhaps equally regrettably, the life of the theatre largely depends. So I will try not to let nostalgia blind me. However, I cannot help but be struck by the contrast between the lack of variety in the present London scene, and the plentiful variety of what was on offer for me in the Cambridge and London theatre of the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
Of course, there have always been musicals - those early musicals from the States were so exciting; Oklahoma Annie get your gun the first musicals I ever saw; and later South Pacific, Kiss Me Kate, and Guys and Dolls were somehow assimilated to become part of the way I then locked at life. In the fifties though there were also small scale successful musicals like Salad Days and The Boy Friend. There were also many revues: Laurier Lister's revues with Joyce Grenfell, and The Drop of a Hat and Another Drop of the Hat and later 1961 Beyond the Fringe - perhaps the most influential having started on the Edinburgh Fringe.
Perhaps this is a partial viewpoint but the present 'taste of the town' no longer seems to be for revue, or for farce ,which was also popular then - see Hotel Paradiso1956 at the Winter Garden Theatre, Drury Lane with Alec Guiness, Irene Worth, Billie Whitelaw, Douglas Byng - costumes and settings by Osbert Lancaster. Perhaps this is the influence of television and radio shows, but in my opinion, they can never take the place of live entertainment.
The number of new plays I saw in the fifties in Cambridge and London now seem to me to be astonishing - especially as so many of them have enjoyed a lasting reputation. At the Cambridge Arts I saw Look back in Anger John Osborne 1957, 1958 The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter, Hamlet of Stepney Green Bernard Kops, Five Finger Exercise Peter Schaffer, and 1960 A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney. In London in 1959 I saw Waiting for Godot directed Peter Hall and Camino Real by Tennesse Williams, also directed by Peter Hall. At the Theatre Royal, Brighton, I have included for interest, One Way Pendulum by N.F. Simpson.
Then there was a rush of new plays in the sixties: 1961 Luther by John Osborne and the Royal Court Theatre makes its first appearance on my list with The Kitchen by Arnold Wesker, his first play I think, later 1964 Inadmissible Evidence by John Osborne and in 1968, not new, but an interesting season of plays by D.H. Lawrence.
World Theatre Season
These are just a selection from my list but I wish to mention one more; in 1965 the Aldwych presented a World Theatre Season which was a 'never to be forgotten' event for me. The details are in my list and the programme for the Season is full of interest, with general introductions by Chaplin, Peter Hall, Peter Ustinov and Tyrone Guthrie, and the directors of the various French, Italian Greek Israeli and American companies performing.
Of course, the simultaneous translation could be tricky but I remember the excitement of seeing for myself famous international companies, famous stars like Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeliene Renaud, and plays performed in their original language. Maybe such enterprises are too expensive now, but on the whole, the present theatre scene presents an insular aspect.
Michael Billington when reviewing "Toyer" by Gardner McKay at the recently revived Arts Theatre (The Guardian, February 28th, 2009) makes two points which I think are relevant to my comparison. He says it is gratifying to find this "intimate West End space back in business" but he regrets, in forcible terms, that the play chosen for this reopening of the Arts tries to please 'the taste of the town; by presenting violence and voyeurism at the same time as moralising in a facile, dated fashion. Fifty years ago, he remembers, this theatre was presenting a double bill of Jean Anouilh.
I remember at this time too seeing "Ring Round the Moon" Christopher Fry's translation of Anouilh's play: a magical experience in the theatre with beautiful fairytale sets and with Paul Schofield in the main part. At this time there was also some expectation, which I suppose has proved delusory, that verse drama had a future. I don't know how well Christopher Fry's plays would stand the test of time, but I do remember how excited I was by T.S. Eliot's "The Cocktail Party" and "The Confidential Clerk". It would be interesting to see if these could be revived with some success.
Conclusion and debate
In conclusion there is question which I asked myself after completing my snap survey about the contemporary theatre scene, a question to which it could be interesting to have some response, even some debate if this were possible.
The Theatre of today enjoys a remarkable freedom of expression, especially when compared to the period of the fifties, sixties and seventies. But what has this freedom brought us? The patents of Davenant and Killigrew which were stifling the theatre in Victorian times of course have long since expired as, more recently, has censorship by the Lord Chamberlain, but to judge from some reactions, to the National's England people Very Nice and Death and the King's Horseman for instance, our liberalism seems to have its limits.
I am not arguing for censorship but asking if we are making the most of the opportunities afforded by this freedom. Some great art has been created in extremely repressive conditions: I am sure we can all think of distinguished examples. Perhaps it is well to be aware of some rules in order to break them?
Anne Hancock, April 2009
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