On Theatre

Midsummer fever dream

What is the direction of theatre for the next season?

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.


Conditions for the return of theatre at scale are a torrid mixture of psychology, epidemiology and economics. Hordes of us double-vaxxed folk are desperate to get back to the stalls. Overall though, “theatre hesitancy” abounds among a lot of audiences who attend on a whim and can’t make advance travel plans.

International audiences, which drive revenues for a venue like London’s Globe Theatre, have evaporated and won’t return until 2022 at least. So even a pleasantly open venue dubbed a “cultural superpower” by ministers, finds itself with a huge task to bring its stages back to life. Its open roof status (seventeenth-century Covid inspectors would have approved) with social distancing in place has allowed for a limited re-opening. This means that modern, price-sensitive, groundlings cheek-by-jowl with one another are not yet allowed back.

This is a fever dream, not reverie and the treatment inevitably has an impact on the play itself

A Midsummer Night’s Dream marked the partial return of a show I first reviewed by Sean Holmes in 2019 (and looked at again with its cast changes online for this column). I guess the idea was to offer us hope and escapism in the festival-esque excess of the Dream and Holmes’s production is conceived to rescue a familiar bit of Big Will’s oeuvre from the mental dust of clunky school productions.

So we get a vibrant carnival atmosphere, featuring rainbow piñatas and a cacophonous brass band. The staging is a jarring melange: there too many aesthetics butting heads. This is a fever dream, not reverie and the treatment inevitably has an impact on the play itself.

The upside is that the voice-work and clumsy-actor sequence of the “rude mechanicals” shine, as they deliver lines with all the finesse of a tannoy-announcer instructing us to wear masks. Helena (Shona Babayemi) as the lover enduring trials of the heart and intellect gives the role a consistent depth.

The Dream is inevitably about cruelty, trickery and the limits of reason unmoored from reality. Titania nods off in a wheelie bin, apparently after clubbing) and the contemporary references, while amusing, bleed the play of its majestic, disturbing oddity.

If all’s well that ends well and summer opening brings even a limited number of audiences back to the stalls then the Globe will be touring its production of All’s Well and opening a new production of The Tempest later this summer.

The National Theatre’s plans for the next season is a clue to what directors and theatre bosses have been thinking about in the lockdown. The National has a hefty government loan to start repaying and its upcoming shows have the “ker-ching” factor in mind as star vehicles: Jack Thorne (After Life) and the ubiquitous Michael Sheen in Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood; a street-poet version of Socrates’s Philoctetes; and new plays by Alecky Blythe (one of the few practitioners who make verbatim theatre more than an exercise in reading other people’s waffle).

The National invariably takes its instruction from the noisy bits of the leftish Zeitgeist so you won’t be very surprised to hear that diversity — racial and identity — is a present preoccupation.

One useful idea which helps address the need for better “pipelines” of work based on non-white experience is having an international writer in residence, who can adapt their work to the National’s cavernous stages. Anupama Chandrasekhar returns to unearth the fascinating story of Nathuram Godse, Gandhi’s assassin, as well as some veteran writers on the black British experience (Roy Williams) and younger/more female newcomers. A Biafran Three Sisters sounds intriguing too.

Miraculously, I did get to an actual theatre this month, albeit a tiny one — the Playground in west London, which is a rehearsal-space cum theatre-for-hire for boutique productions. It has also won plaudits for its local community outreach, situated near the Grenfell tower.

It is a poignant reminder that the fringe as well as the grand stage keeps the wheels of the mind turning over

The night I went, the journalist James MacManus’s semi-staged play was revisiting a tangled web in Einstein and Me, a neat four-hander exploring the compromises and evasions of two of the outstanding minds of the twentieth century, Kurt Gödel and Albert Einstein.

The two Jewish emigres settled (uneasily) at Princeton and shared a fixation on the nature of time and its consequences for physics and metaphysics, with a uniting theme of time-travel (yes, I’m usually allergic too, but at least Gödel had a theorem to support it).

It’s a Stoppardesque canvas with an awful lot going on. Gödel falling into mental illness and anorexia. Einstein indulging in casual affairs with students which would get him #MeToo’d today. The women who love them hiss and scratch at past moral lapses — Einstein’s support for the atomic bomb and the Gödels’ belated departure from Nazi-occupied Vienna.

The result is a fast-bubbling stew of big ideas and personal animus and a touch overloaded (stilted dinner table conversations canter through a lot of history). Yet the smart idea of revisiting Einstein and Gödel set me reading Douglas Hofstatder’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. It is a poignant reminder that the fringe as well as the grand stage keeps the wheels of the mind turning over, when we need it most.

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