Through poor fortune or poor choice over the last six months there has been a lot of mediocre theatre served up by some of the establishment’s big names performing in London’s highest profile spaces. Having had the misfortune to sit through a disproportionate amount, there has been ample opportunity to muse upon the reasoning that leads to one wrong decision after another contriving to reduce potentially sublime theatre experiences into hollow shells of directorial pretension and actor artifice.
The pendulum of audience response suspended over every production seems to swing heavily towards the director when it is not well received and towards the actor when all is going well. It is perhaps unsurprising that this should be the case. Given that much of London’s theatre is about reviving classics then the director is in a tight spot. There is an expectation that a play should be looked at afresh but too fresh – as Deborah Warner found with the School for Scandal and Charles Spencer’s enraged response to Ian Rickson’s Hamlet at The Young Vic demonstrate – and the critics can be up in arms.
Actors’ are usually not blamed for such decisions and a safe, or even dull, production can generally reap much praise for the traditional performances of the cast –the phenomenally overrated Long Day’s Journey into the Night was stymied by overly naturalistic performances in an interminably conservative productions. The result: no risk and the cast showered in praise.
The key in theatre, as with so much in life, is balance. A director must work harmoniously with the actor to recreate the text in a manner that resonates for the audience and elicits truth in whatever form that should take. This point may work in an academic textbook or possibly in particularly un-radical manifesto for the theatre but halfway through watching The Cat’s Mother the central flaw of this approach became apparent. It may be fine for plays where the author is dead or removed from the production but how about when they are very much involved?
We are currently in the midst of a startling rebirth of new dramatic writing – a process that seems to come in waves every decade or so. It appears that British playwrights have finally thrown off the shackles of Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill and are finding their own voice. Lucy Prebble has followed up ENRON with the acclaimed ‘The Effect’, Simon Stephen’s output has reached prodigious levels and Nick Payne has ‘Constellations’ shortlisted for Evening New Standard Best Play and has enticed Jake Gyllenhall to star in ‘If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet’ across the pond.
Clearly there is a case that the author cannot be ignored if they are alive, kicking and taking an interest in the end product, and this is what I fear may have happened with The Cat’s Mother. Having seen some of the cast earlier in the year in Girlband, I am fully aware of their talents and a transition to more serious subjects was of interest. Pericles Snowdon is an award-winning writer and so this meeting of minds was an enticing prospect.