Theatre and the Marketplace
martes, 7 de enero de 2014
Theatre and the Marketplace
Chapter 22: Theatre and the Marketplace (1979-90)
The eighties were driven throughout by the supposedly 'Victorian values', moral and economic, of that small shopkeepers' revision of low Tory dogma which became known as Thatcherism. The decade began and ended in recession: in between, the long, slow process of redistributing wealth from rich to poor went in reverse, when tax reductions fro the wealthy failed to produce the promised 'tricle-down' effect; and such resources as remained for the welfare state (electorally popular despite the Thatcherite push for 'self-help') were stretched by the need to dole out subsistence to the swollen ranks of the unemployed. Meanwhile, a programme of 'privatizing' the public sector of the economy steadily liquidated the nation's capital assets—a process which even an ageing former Conservative prime minister, Harold Macmillan, likened to selling the family silver. Effectively, the post-war political consensus was destroyed.
At home, an autocratic prime minister overrode opposition, alike from the more accomodating 'wets' in her own cabinet and from effective political opponents—such as she found in the trades unions, which were duly emasculated, or in the largely Labour-dominated metropolitan councils, which were abolished (leaving London without a representative governing body for the first time in a century). Abroad, Margaret Thatcher found a soul-mate in the ageing movie actor Ronald Reagan, the emollient paternalism of whose eight-year presidency struck a responsive chord in his 'fellow-Americans' just as Thatcher's brusque nannying must have met some deep-seated need in a quiescent English (as distinct from British) public.
Redolent as much of the black-and-white morality of melodrama as of the B-movies of his youth, Reagan's simplistic dream of a nation (rather than a world) sheltering from nuclear attack beneath a laser-wrought umbrella was instantly named 'star wars'—after a futuristic film. The financial drain of trying to second-guess the dubious technology of the enterprise, later sensibly abandoned, was one cause of the collapse, at the end of the decade, of the Soviet Union and its satellite states—this 'evil empire', as Reagan had earlier described his necessary enemy. But the hopes consequently placed upon what was described (in the characteristic jargon of the times) as the 'peace dividend' soon gave way before the revived nationalistic hostilities and disintegrating economies of the former communist nations—now being taught, even by supposedly neutral observers, to equate 'freedom' with the ineluctable workings of the 'free market'.
Communist regimes had at least recognized the honours they vicariously accrued through lavish funding of cultural projects. Most continental democracies, too, had long acknoweldged the necessity for reasonable state subsidy—not just to protect cost-intensive national institutions, but to promote the greater accessibility of the arts through what the French called 'decentralization'. In Britain the Arts Council had, on its more modest budget, been hesitantly shadowing such examples: but the Thatcher government was disposed rather to encourage, after the American model, arts funding from private sources. Tax incentives (less generous than the American) were duly offered for business sponsorship, sometimes with matching state funding promised for its lucky recipients. (Without irony, a national lottery was also projected as an appropriate source of support for the arts).
As arts administrators frittered away disproportionate time upon the tactful, usually unrewarded composition of applications for business sponsorship, they thus found it politic to speak in terms of investments and returns, of markets and invisible exports—but were able to offer as collateral only their own, hard-to-quantify prestige. Of course, prestige for sponsors accrued more surely and safely from association with high-profile national companies than from support for experimental or small-scale work. And there was seldom a guarantee that any kind of backing would last beyond the immediate period or purpose for which it had been secured. Forward planning became a near impossibility.
To win private or public support, even the institutional theatre was expected to demonstrate its 'good housekeeping' —a much-favoured term, especially following the inquiry of the Priestley inquiry of 1983 into the running of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Expected to carp, the civil-service investigator in the event could find little to fault, and went enthusiastically native: but the resulting boost in state support for the company proved short-lived, and within a few years had to be supplemented by one of the major sponsorship deals of the decade. Thereafter, the RSC logo rode into the nineties in tandem with that of Royal Insurance.
THE DECADE OF THE MUSICAL
For the commercial theatre at large this was, beyond doubt, the decade of the musical. Ironically, the previously dominant American style, although reinvigorated (and intermittently represented) by Stephen Sondheim, now found itself outpizzazzed in London by the native British variety, resuscitated under the influence, as much entrepreneurial as musical, of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Following up his early but perennially revived Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat (1968) with Jesus Christ Supertar and Evita in the seventies, Lloyd Webber—often with Trevor Nunn as his director—went on to build a show-business fortune of fabulous proportions with a steady succession of blockbusting hits, from Cats (1981) via Starlight Express (1984) to The Phantom of the Opera (1986) and Aspects of Love (1989).
Based on a combination of cleverly-hyped expectations, trendy high-tech staging, and tangy if somewhat predigested lyrics and scores, these purveyed an acceptably pasteurized sense of 'experience'—often handily doubling if not conceived as 'concept albums' for the record industry. Soon, even the national companies were lavishing their resources on musicals, whether robust revivals such as Richard Eyre's Guys and Dolls for the national or company-originated spectacles mounted with an eye to profitable transfers. Some such ventures—the National's Jean Seberg in 1983, Terry Hands's disastrous Carrie in 1989—properly came to grief; but Nunn's production for the RSC of Les Misérables (1985), illustrated alongside, was an instant popular if not critical success. It quickly and calculatedly transferred from the Barbican to the Palace in Cambridge Circus—a theatre which Lloyd Webber had purchased outright in 1982, and which, until Les Mis took up its long occupation, seemed to have become almost a permanent showcase for his own work.
Illustration: Scene at the barricades from Les Misérables, which opened at the RSC's new, purpose-built London theatre, the Barbican, in 1985. Directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caaird, this was one of Nunn's final triumphs as artistic director of the company. The production was mounted in association with a commercial management: soon transferring to the Palace Theatre in the West End, it ran on through the decade and beyond.
THE ARTS COUNCIL AND THE INSTITUTIONS
The Arts Council of this period seemed chronically pregnant with reports—one of the earliest of which, The Glory of the Garden (aptly a product of 1984, a year long synonymous with doublespeak), anticipated the cultivation of 'excellence' at the expense of experiment. Later, the more fully-researched and wide-ranging Cork report into the condition of the profession went largely unimplemented. The Council now found itself besieged on the one side by clients facing cuts in their funding, and on the other by politicians who questioned the need for its existence, while the 'arm's length' principle which had previously protected it from political pressures also came under threat For this was a govrenment which believed it always knew best—and in 1985 duly blamed a miserly arts allocation on the vocal opposition to its policies of the likes of Peter Hall.
Although some further devolution of funding to regional bodies was accomplished and arguably overdue, the suspicion could not be avoided that this made it all the easier for an otherwise centralizing administration to divide and rule. But because protests from within the profession were largely limited to bleatings over inadequate funds, and thus demonstrably self-interested, they failed, advisedly or otherwise, to address the philosophy underlying the shortage. Philip Hedley, who gradually rebuilt Theatre Workshop into a thriving neighbourhood playhouse for Stratford East, was one of the very few directors who dared to sustain a full-frontal attack on government policies and survive—while other politically controversial companies, such as Joint Stock, Foco Novo, and the English 7:84 company, fell victim one by one to the Arts Council axe. (The 7:84 company was permitted to survive in Scotland—once it had quietly disposed of its founder, John McGrath).
The Royal Court, under the continuing direction of Max Stafford-Clark, also found itself regularly threatened—at one time by a bizarre proposal to transfer responsibility for its funding to the Boroguh of Kensington and Chelsea, whose attitude to this unruly presence in Sloane Squared varied from the disinterested to the downright hostile. That the Court managed to survive was thanks rather to a succession of well-calculated West End transfers than to state support, as the theatre fell from being third best-funded in Britain to sixteenth.
In consequence, the number of productions at the Court steadily diminished, and Stafford-Clark found it impossible to maintain a regular acting company—never, confessedly, a top priority at that theatre. Elsewhere, to borrow an apt culinary metaphor, the RSC's approach to company-building (as to repertoire) had always tended towards the table d'hôte, whreas at the National actors (and productions) were in these years usually offered à la carte (though the generalization at once reminds one of such undervalued exceptions as the stalwart Michael Bryant, on the acting strength of the NT, or of Bob Crowley, a regular designer of astonishing range and virtuosity).
However, for a time in the early eighties Peter Hall found himself trying to keep no fewer than five separate acting companies in mutually-compatible harness at the National—an experiment designed, it seemed, as much to secure the loyalties of the people involved as to woo audiences for their shows. Among the most successful directors of the period, following an annus mirabilis in 1983 with Guys and Dolls, The Beggar's Opera, and Schweyk in the Second World War, was Richard Eyre: and in 1988 it was Eyre who succeeded Hall as artistic director, with David Aukin as his administrative right-hand-man.
Generally, Eyre kept a looser and somehow friendlier rein on a company now settling into a middle age made enforcedly 'safer' in its choices by cointinuing economic constraints. But this did not silence grumbles that the NT remained better endowed relative to its output (and considering its failure to sustain a regular touring policy) than the Royal Shakespeare Company—which in 1982 at last transferred its London base to the purpose-built Barbican Centre. Conceived in a period of confident expansion but finally bonr into an age of austerity, the Barbican was variously regarded as a symbol of RSC empire-building and a white elephant—sometimes both. It boasted an almost impenetrable approach, a pleasant enough sweep of a main house, and a soulless, claustrophobic subterranean studio, aptly dubbed The Pit.
Like the rebuilt Memorial Theatre back in 1932, the Barbican opened with the two Henry IV plays, in new productions by Trevor Nunn. But one of its earliest successes was, of all things, Peter Pan, in a production by Nunn and John Caird designed to keep the magic while cutting the whimsy, which ran for three successive Christmas seasons. Also in 1982, Adrian Noble made surely the most propitious directing debut at Stratfrod since those of Hall and Nunn, with a King Lear which paired Michael Gambon with one of the most distinctive of the new generation of RSC players, Antony Sher, in a sort of vaudevillian double act as king and fool. It was Noble who took over when Terry Hands, who had become sole artistic director in 1988, left the company three years later, while Sher sustained his growing reputation with a spidery but astonishingly athletic Richard III, under the direction of Bill Alexander—who now followed Ron Daniels, Howard Davies, and Barry Kyle from studio work into main-house Shakespeare.
(Illustr.): Antony Sher (b. 1949) was one of the major acting talents to emerge from the Royal Shakespeare Company during the eighties. Despite earlier successes in plays by Mike Leigh and Sam Shepard, it was his performance at Stratford in 1982 as a gangling, red-nosed Fool to Michael Gambon's Lear, in a first production for the RSC by its future artistic director, Adrian Noble, which saw Sher's distinctive, athletic genius come to full maturity. Then, in 1984, he played the Richard III portrayed alongside: a warped hunchback whose self-animated crutches made him both boggled spider and slithering toad—yet also genuinely sexy and suavely complicit with his audiences. Sher's other roles included the revolutionary turned reactionary Martin Glass in David Edgar's Maydays (1983), the contrasting title parts in Molière's Tartuffe and Bulgakov's Molière (1983), and the leader of a band of medieval itinerants in Peter Barnes's brilliant black comedy, Red Noses (1985). Back in the West End, he wrought some stunning emotional transitions as the lithe, stiletto-heeled drag queen in Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy (1985).
In 1986 the RSC acquired another 'edifice'—or rather resuscitated an old one, converting the reliques of the first Memorial Theatre into the glossy but thoughtfully conceived Swan, inteded to house the work of Shakespeare's contemporaries and successors. Honourably, in the first few years of its existence it duly staged rare revivals of plays by Heywood, Tourneur, Shirley, and Brome, as well as by Jonson, Marlowe, and the more marketable Restoration writers. Despite its name, the Stratford Swan was no replica 'Elizabethan' showcase, but unexpectedly 'neutral' in the best sense, comfortable and attractive but allowing the play to command the space rather than the space the play. (Meanwhile, Sam Wanamaker's project to recreate the old Globe on the south bank, as close as possible to its original structure and near to its original site, was coming slowly closer to fruition).
(Illustration:) Kenneth Branagh in the title role of Henry V. Like Antony Sher, Branagh emerged as a major talent with the RSC, for whom he played this vulnerable, rather reserved Prince Hal in 1984; but he went on to assert his actorly independence, directing his own Romeo and Juliet (1986) and acting in his own play, Public Enemy (1987), before helping to create the Renaissance Theatre Company, whose inaugural Twelfth Night of 1987 was follow3ed by a sellout Shakespeare season at the Phoenix in the following year.
COMMERCIAL THEATRE—AND INTERNATIONAL THEATRE
Release from institutional office enabled Hall, Nunn, and Hands to draw more regular commercial dividends from their years at the subsidized workface—in 1988 the Haymarket becoming a first London base for the newly-established Peter Hall Company,. This theatre had long settled into a role as home for classy revivals, now cast to attract audiences accultured to television. Hall's repertoire largely of old and new classics was later star-spangled by Dustin Hoffman, tempted back to the stage to play The Merchant of Venice at the Phoenix in 1989.
Although its theatres were custom-built to reflect the social hierarchies now being reinstated, astronomic overheads and break-evens in the West End increasingly limited its output to shows which had not only been pre-packaged but also pre-sold. As on Broadway, nothing less than a smash hit now made economic sense, 'moderate' runs being allowable only for for a leavening of small-cast, modestly set plays—preferably by the likes of Tom Stoppard, Alan Ayckbourn, or Michael Frayn. One-person shows were also allowable—such as those in which Barry Humphries alternated the high suburban glamour of his 'housewife superstar', Dame Edna Everage, with the slovenly philistinism of his antipodean cultural attaché, Sir Les Patterson. Throughout the decade, too, over-dependence on the tourrist trade left the theatre vulnerable to changes in the international political or economic climate, a terrorist threat turning a dozen or so houses 'dark', a boom leaving good 'product' awaiting a home. Proven successes from the National and the RSC were also cost-effectively transferred.
Between recessions, in 1988, the failed businessman, best-selling pulp novelist, and loyal (if accident-prone) Thatcherite Jeffrey Archer took a nibble from his fortune to buy the Playhouse theatre on the Embankment—but neither this venture nor a brief attempt in the same year to convert the Royalty into a sort of National Theatre for middlebrows survived the ensuing slump. More worthily and successfully, the Theatre of Comedy—a brainchild of the veteran farceur turned impresario Ray Cooney, dedicated to the discovery and display of contrasting comic styles—colonized several thatres from a first base at the usually ill-starred Shaftesbury.
Two other new companies, though alike classically sustained, proved radically different in most other respects. The English Shakespeare Company, created in 1986 by Michael Bogdanov and Michael Pennington, was director-based, and happily disrespectful of bardic authority in its updating and contemporary allusions: its Wars of the Roses sequence of the Shakespearean history cycle was an international success, from Berlin to Tokyo and from the Windy City of Chicago to London's no less windy Waterloo Road. But the Renaissance Theatre Company, formed in 1987 in part as a vehicle for the precocious talents of Kenneth Branagh (whose chutzpah to my taste outshone the charisma which held others in sway) was firmly in the orthodox if largely-displaced tradition of actor-management, and remained reverential towards its posthumously resident dramatist.
Branagh's season at the Phoneix in 1988 showed that Shakespeare could still prove good box-office in the West End—at a time when, ironically, its former home, the Old Vic, was struggling to find a new identity. Following the departure of the National, from 1977 to 1981 the theatre had provided a metropolitan base for the touring Prospect Theatre, and was then purchased by the Canadian impresario Ed Mirvish: but despite the subsequent beautification, and a brief and stormy flirtration with the wayward directorial genius of Jonathan Miller, the theatre found itself lacking a distinctive mission—at the very time when, a few yards away, David Thacker was giving a purposive new lease of life to the Young Vic, a rather spartan but clean-cut house too often avoided on account of the school parties which had provided its necessary life-support.
Dwon river at Hammersmith, too, Peter James was reviving the fortunes of the Lyric—the baroque glories of the old, demolished theatre having been transplanted into an unlikely modernist shell in 1979. Here, and in the studio theatre attached, James was among several directors now beginning to give a less parochial look to the London scene. Also in Hammersmith, the more utilitarian (and more adaptable) Riverside Studios played host to numerous visitors from abroad, ranging from the depressive Pole, Tadeusz Kantor, to the irrepressible Italian, Dario Fo—whose blend of old-style commedia and new-style agitprop made him a seminal influence (and, ironically, also a West End success) esarly in the decade.
One of Peter Hall's most imaginative later appointments at the National was of Thelma Holt, formerly of the Open Space and the Round House, and now given special responsibility for bringing leading foreign companies to the South Bank—whence an eclectic blend of influences briefly wafted while Holt made a brave stab at resurrecting the Wold Theatre Seasons of old. In Cardiff, meanwhile, the Chapter Arts Centre had become a year-round receptive venue for foreign practitioners at the cutting-edge of their craft. But most resolute of those who followed in the footsteps of Peter Daubeny were a pair of young, independente entrepreneurs, Rose Fenton and Lucy Neal, who, in 1981, emerged seemingly from nowhere (having travelled seemingly everywhere) to assemble the first London International Festival of Theatre—a feat whih, almost single-handedly, they managed to repeat biannually throughout the decade and beyond.
(Illustration:) The Actors Touring Company in their adaptation of the third play, Ubu in Chains, of Alfred Jarry's proto-absurdist Ubu cycle (1985). ATC was one of several small-scale touring companies who tended in the eighties to concentrate on rejuvenating the classical repertoire. Notable among the others were the irreverently stylish, visually exciting, and always fast-moving Cheek by Jowl; Shared Experience, with a roughte,r more baroque style and concentrated narrative line; the far-flung Footsbarn company; and the vibrantly responsive, self-defining Medieval Players.
FROM ALTERNATIVE THEATRE TO CHAMBER THEATRE
In its production-intensive occupation of a profusion of both high and humble venues, LIFT was the closest the capital came to emulating the concentrated energy of the Edinburgh Festiveal—where the appointment of Frank Dunlop as artistic director had led to 'official' offerings now more truly representative of world theatre, playing alongside the more erratic but still-proliferating productions on the fringe. On the London 'fringe', meanwhile, the Old Red Lion in Islington, the Gate at Notting Hill, and the Latchmere in Battersea—where a bustling Arts Centre also flourished—were among the new venues which enlivened a decade when truly 'alternative' excitements were becoming harder to find.
Thus, the trend on the fringe (with not a little assistance from carefully directed funding) was away from political commitment and 'agitprop' towards such glitzier displays of mannered exuberance as those which earned and sustained a glowing reputation for Cheek by Jowl—who would typically take a major or minor classic, rejig it in their own extrovert manner, and let it burst afresh upon their audiences. Cultural conservatism underlying a veneer of stylistic flamboyance could also be detected in the work of such groups as the Actors' Touring Company and Theatre de Complicite (accentless by choice)–often excellent of its kind, but essentially 'chamber theatre' rather than in any meaningful sense 'alternative'. Not unexpectedly, therefore, Declan Donnellan and his designer Nick Ormerod from Cheek by Jowl made career moves to the National which were natural and contented (where Mike Alfred's earlier transition had been dissonant and fraught).
As the fringe went upwardly mobile, an increasing distance began to be felt between such small but prestigiously-maintained theatres as the Almeida at Highbury or the Donmar Warehouse (as the RSC's old Covent Garden studio was now renamed) and more makeshift venues in halls or pubs, however imaginatively fitted-up. Among the newcomers were the Finborough Arms in Fulham, the Hen and Chickens on Highbury Corner, and the Man in the Moon in Chelsea. This suggested the need for some new distinction of convenience, analogous to that separating 'off-Broadway' from 'off-off-Broadway' houses in New York.
Ethnic theatre was now able to draw upon a growing stable of writers of Afro-Caribbean or Asian roots—among them, Edgar White, Michael Abbensetts, Caryl Phillips, Tunde Ikoli, Mustapha Matura, Farrukh Dhondy, Barrie Reckord, Hanif Kureishi, and Jacqueline Rudet. Several of these were also workin in 'mainstream' theatre—as were many gay playwrights, for whom a prevalent, almost overwhelming concern, both humane and artistic, was the emergent threat of Aids. In its own constituency, gay theatre found itself under threat not only from the new prejudices thus provoked, but legally and financially too, from what became known simply as 'Clause 28'—a section of the Local Government Act of 1988 which (with dangerous vagueness) forbad support for activities promoting homosexual behaviour.
(Illustration): Jennifer Saunders, Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French, and Peter Richardson (plus Timmy the dog) in Five Go Mad in Dorset—the first Comic Strip production, transmitted on the opening night of Channel Four on 2 November 1982. This ebullient send-up of Enid Blyton's children's stories shared only its tongue-in-cheek truth to style with successors which otherwise parodied genres as various as sixties films striving to be nouvelle vague, self-consciously rough-cut television documentaries, on-the-run road movies, slow-burning westerns, and trendy feminist dystopias. Combining streetwise culture with postmodern pastiche, the series was of uneven quality, its offerings varying from the irrepressibly comic to the self-referentially clever: but all engaged energies and stretched muscles unfamiliar in television comedy. Only Blyton was twice targeted—with another saga of retarded pubescence, Five Go Mad on Mescalin (1983).
THE RISE OF ALTERNATIVE COMEDY
Some gay groups and performers, from the satirical drag act Bloolips to the high-camp but low-intensity Julian Clary, responded with an outgoing and often outrageous humour to their situation. Indeed, throughout the decade John McGrath's belief in the power of the 'compilation bill' was validated less in the work of theatre companies such as his own than through the emergence of what quickly became known as 'alternative comedy'. This is generally dated from the opening in 1979 of the Comedy Store in Dean Street, Soho—a sort of do-or-die showcase for all who dared brave its well-lubricated audiences and infamous valedictory gong, first wielded by Alexei Sayle.
Early graduates of the Comedy Store included most of the team collectivelly known as the Comic Strip—besides Sayle himself, Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Nigel Planer, Peter Richardson, Robbie Coltrane, Ben Elton, Dawn French, and Jennifer Saunders. These variously wrote, directed, and appeared in a sequence of one-off spoofs for television, displaying a wide variety of parodic styles—their common element a sort of laid-back, pre-emptive postmodernism. The first 'Comic Strip' was, significantly, transmitted in November 1982 on the opening night of Channel Four—the closest British television came to offering an 'alternative' channel, and a haven for innovatory talent before the market and the ratings supervened.
However, it was the BBC which elevated Mayall, Edmondston, and Planer into cult figures for an adolescent generation through their engagement, also in 1982, in The Young Ones, an anarchic bed-sitcom of high-pitched, chronic mid-youth crisis. By 1985 this had its mildly more mature female equivalent, when Tracy Ullman and Ruby Wax joined French and Saunders as flatmates in the appositely named Girls on Top. All these performers went on to develop their acts and stage personae far beyond their alternative origins, while remaining largely faithful to their spirit—Elton becoming the best-loved and despised of the solo comics, his chirpy stream-of-consciousness eliding satire and scatology into a radical rhetoric of humour.
More typical, of course, were the multiplicity of obscure stand-ups and double-acts who now began to appear in no less obscure pub and club venues up and down the country. Whether or not, as some claimed, comic performance thus came to define the cultural aspirations of late eighties youth as rock'n'roll had for their parents in the sixties, its resurgence as a vehicle for radical social and sexual comment was certainly surprising—for the medium had long been marked by its inherent conservatism and regular resort to sexual and racial stereotyping (explained if not justified by Bergsonian and Freudian theory).
FEMALE AND MALE
One of the minor, madder myths perpetuated by such stereotyping was that women lacked the skills—perhaps, some pontificated, the sense of humour—to command an audience in stand-up comedy. This myth was now shattered by the veritable explosion of female comic talent—not only 'alternative', but, in the work of such artists as Victoria Wood, closer to the tradition of cabaret than of the drinking club. The complacent 'post-feminist' assertion that, in the battle for equality, a ceasefire if not a victory had been achieved may have been (no, was) demonstrably false in such realms of male chauvinist piggery as the Houses of Parliament in the City of London but in the theatre it did seem that the assimilation of women into areas which had before been almost unthinkingly male-dominated was well advanced—without, confessedly, much in the way of 'affirmative action' to speed along the process.
Female directors, for example, now bcame a felt presence. Any list of notable entrants to this branch of the profession would thus have to set alongside such male newcomers as Declan Donnellan, Nicholas Hytner, Stephen Daldry (who won the Royal Court succession in 1993), and Sam Mendes a rather larger female contingent, including Susan Todd, Sue Dunderdale, Di Trevis, Deborah Warner, Jenny Topper, Katie Mitchell, Phyllida Lloyd, and Garry Hynes—not to mention those women who chose to confine their work to feminist or lesbian rather than mainstream outlets.
So far as acting was concerned, there had for many years been more women than men struggling for security in a craft which was becoming increasingly overcrowded and underemployed (leading to proposals that entrance should be limited to graduates of accredited acting schools). But whereas succcessful male performers had always included the physically atyical, the eccentric, and even the downright ugly, with only a due proportion of handsome matinee-idols, the attributes of the aspirant actress had normally been expected to include, if not beauty, at least prettiness or 'charm'. This presumption of sexual allure—which posed problems even for the most glamorous actress as she approached middle age—now began to change with what seems, in retrospect, decisive suddenness.
Any roll-call of actors who worked memorably during the eighties would thus expectedly encompass a wide range of syles and physical characteristics. Consider, not quite at random, such names (besides those of Sher, Branagh, and Gambon) as Bob Peck, Simon Callow, Alan Rickman, Gerard Murphy, Michael Pennington, Brian Cox, Rupert Everett, Ian McDiarmid, mark Rylance, and Symon Russell Beale. But now, thankfully, a similar list of actresses who emerged or fully blossomed during the decade evokes no less broad a spectrum of qualities—including beauty and charm, sure enough, but among many less conventional virtues, and with a fair dash of rough-edged quirkiness thrown in for good measure.
(Illustration:) Juliet Stevenson as an assertively masculine Rosalind, with Fiona Shaw as a fiery Celia, in Adrian Noble's RSC production of As You Like It (1985). Stevenson and Shaw were just two of the numerous actresses (some named on pages 373-4 of the text) who rode happily roughshod over older assumptions about their style and expected range—part of the process through which women began to reclaim a wider role in mainstream theatre. This resulted not only in an influx of new women writers, but a revived interest in the work of previously ignored dramatists from the historical repertoire—ranging from Aphra Behn, whose The Rover was staged in 1986 during the opening season of the RSC's new venue for experimental classical work, the Swan, to the American expressionist of the thirties, Sophie Treadwell, whose Machinal was to provide a later triumph for Fiona Shaw at the National in 1993.
A further not-quite-random sampling to suggest such infinite variety might thus include Juliet Stevenson, Harriet Walter, Julia Mackenzie, Miranda Richardson, Frances de la Tour, Patricia Routledge, Brenda Blethyn, Imelda Staunton, Zoë Wanamaker, Tilda Swinton, Maggie Steed, Maureen Lipmann, Imogen Stubbs, Kathryn Hunter, Frances Barber, Nicola McAuliffe, Alison Steadman, Josette Simon, Julie Walters, and Fiona Shaw. No less important, the many and diverse styles here represented were beginning to be served by a fairer distribution of female roles, in terms alike of quantity and of their centrality to a play's action.
Although this was in part due to the increased responsiveness of male playwrights, women writers for the theatre were also becoming more numerous. An instant recall of dramatists of the eighties could thus set such names as Louise Page, Andrea Dunbar, Sarah Daniels, Maureen Duffy, Timperlake Wertenbaker, Winsome Pinnock, Tasha Fairbanks, Ann Devlin, Charlotte Keating, and Helene Edmundson alongside those of Terry Johnson, Doug Lucie, Michael Wilcox, Peter Flannery, Nicholas Wright, Alan Bleasdale, Anthony Minghella, Robert Holman, Jim Cartwright, Willy Russell, Stephen Poliakoff, Hanif Kureishi, Ron Hutchinson, Nick Dear, and Martin Crimp—suggesting at least a widening breach in the virtual male monopoly of old.
These listings serve well enough their chief purpose—of suggesting the welcome reinforcement of women's numbers in all branches of theatre. But to resort, as I have done, to such representative roll-calls of both sexes is also implicityly (so why not explicitly?) to acknowledge the difficulty of making instant assessments of so many careers still in formative progress, let alone considering their relative significance. In the absence of consensual verdicts, trying to evaluate theatrical experiences so close to one's recent life experiences can only tempt one into the optimistic oxymorons and hopefully illuminating adjectives through which personal taste assumes a cloak of objectivity.
No less, then, will any selection of the major plays of the eighties reflect my own prejudices—in this case, a preference for those few which shared and also shed new light upon my own depressed view of the state of the nation. Among these—some obvious choices, some not—were Louise Page's Falkland Sound (183), Hare and Brenton's Pravda (1985), Churchill's Serious Money (1987), Alan Ayckbourn's A Small Family Business (1987), Doug Lucie's Fashion (1987), Peter Flannery's Singer (1989), and Hare's Racing Demon (1990) and Murmuring Judges (1991).
Aong plays which worked more allusivelly, Nick Dear's The Art of Success (1986) found its analogies in the times of Fielding and Hogarth, while Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good (1988) drew illuminatingly upon Farquhar's Recruiting Officer (with which it played in tandem at the Court) to make its points about coloniaalism and class. Brian Friel's Translations (1981) similarly explored elements of the continuing Irish 'troubles' by protraying the rape of the nation's language and cultural heritage during the nineteenth century. Translations was the inaugural production of the Field Day company, based in Derry, whoe cross-sectarian and cross-cultural approach to its community's problems valiantly spanned the decade following its creation in 1980 by Friel and the actor Stephen Rea.
(Illustration:) Brian Friel's Translations, which transferred from Hampstead Theatre Club to the National Theatre in 1981. Here a derelict tramp (Sebastian Shaw), saturated in folk knowledge of classical and pagan gods, and the pretty but uneducated Maire (Bernadette Shortt) are among the ill-assorted pupils in one of the Irish 'hedge-schools' of the 1830, through which the peasantry attempted a measure of self-education in the face of a British government concerned only with the 'translation' into English of the Irish culture and language. The play had already been presented in Ireland by the Field Day company, founded in 1980 by Friel and the actor Stephen Re. Based in Derry, Field Day worked thorughout the decade to create a non-sectarian but committed theatre for the whole of Ireland. Their later productions included Freil's The Communication Cord, The Cartaginians by Frank McGuinness, Thomas Kilroy's Double Cross, and Stewart Parker's Pentecost.
'HERITAGE', SPECTACLE, AND THE THEATRE OF THE STREETS
In the entertainment industry as in the nation at large, however, the eighties preferred the escapist refuge offered by history to any insights it might offer into present-day problems. Indeed, with manufacturing industried being run down and even service industries deflected into the 'service' of the boom-or-bust philosophy, the 'heritage industry' seemed at times to be the only sector of the economy set for sustained expansion. The new vogue for commodifying the past led, among much else, to 'interactive' encounters with Jack the Ripper in the murky vaults below London Bridge Station, or with bucolic Chaucerian pilgrims in the shadow of Canterbury Cathedral. Even at Madame Tussaud's a homogenized history of London came complete with sounds, smells, and other environmental illusions.
The taste for spectacle reached into the future as well as synthesizing the past, and in the old Trocadero on Piccadilly Circus one could thus experience the full horror of a twenty-minute 'alien invasion'. But just as dioramas appeared primitive in the age of cinemascope, so will even the battery of computerized effects there employed seem unsophisticated before the holograhic and silicon-rooted shows of the near future—when miniaturized circuits will also be capable of sensitizing every part, including the most private, to the closeted experience of 'virtual reality'.
Of course, no foreseeable electronic wizardry will be able to supplant that sense of participation and communal celebration which humanity still seems to need—and to derive from live enterntainment before a live audience. Whether at the level of 'high' or 'low' art—of Pavarotti in the Park or of Band Aid in Wembley Stadium, to cite two contrasting mass events of the eightiess—spectacle on a grand scale thus continued intermittently in fashion. That this was in part a reaction against the domesticating tendencies of television did not, of course, deter the medium from domesticating such events for couch-potato consumption.
A humbler, partial, and more widely remunerative reaction in favour of live performance was the vogue in pubs and clubs for 'karaoke'—a Japanese-originated craze which, thorugh a suble use of backing tracks, gave amateurs the sense of personally rendering some favoured 'standard' or current hit. Consciously or not, the creators of 'karaoke' thus managed simultaneously and effectively to interweave the three instincts from which most modern participatory performance derives—the folk-rooted need to celebrate shared cultural values; the no less ancient desire of the professional entertainer to tun that need into personal profit; and its more recent manipulation, by those controlling the means of mass communication, to increased dependence upon technology.
More humbly still, as the old fruit and vegetable market left Covent Garden and an artsy-craftsy shopping precinct took its place, street entertainers began to return in force to central London—as to railway stations, subways, pedestrianized town centres, and postmodern shopping malls throughout the land. They enjoyed no subsidy or security—and remained subject to the weather and the whims of passers-by as itinerant performers have always been. Some followed a 'new age' trail by choice, turning up one week at Glastonbury, the next at the Hat Fair in Winchester, like strolling players of old: but others, the new underclass of 'masterless men', slept haplessly on the streets as well as begging a living there. A return to the roots of theatre? Or the restoration of an ignoble cultural 'heritage', as the nation reneged on its duty, only belatedly recognized, to shield its people from such deprivations?
Not that such support for the arts as remained was always happily deployed. In 1990, for example, one regional theatre chose to suspend its home-based repertoire and to double its ticket prices in order to guarantee a fixed return to the Peter Hal Company for its visiting production of The Wild Duck. In the event, derisory audiences left the theatre badly in debt—a debt it chose to expunge by closing down its theatre-in-education team. It woud be unfair to name the theatre, for in other respects it had an honourable record in the field: but the tale is only too typical of a decade of distorted values and misplaced priorities.
Also in 1990, and also for lack of funding, the RSC closed down (albeit temporarily) its Barbican stages, leaving London for the first time in thirty years without the invigorating presence of the company from Stratford. At the Aldwych, for so long its makeshift but maybe happier London home, a British star of American TV soaps, Joan Collins, was reimported in September, to lend glamour to a revival of Noël Coward's Private Lives. In a nation where—or so Margaret Thatcher had declared—there was no such thing as society, private lives were, presumably, what it was all about. By the time the production closed in January, the prime minister had herself fallen victim to the law of the jungle she espoused.