Gob Squad’s Creation. Verity Standen’s Undersong. RashDash’s Three Sisters.
That’s just last week. Ever? Oh god. Ivo Van Hove’s Kings of War. Swagga. Robert Icke’s Hamlet. Salome. Girl from the North Country. Oresteia. A View from the Bridge. Funny Girl. More things that weren’t as hyped, by theatres and companies I love. Things with short runs in faraway places. Things my friends were in. Plus pretty much all theatre ever before the last five years, when I started actually going to see stuff. There is so so so much I haven’t seen, and for every big show I ached to go to and talk about there are hundreds more intriguing press releases I wish I’d had the time and energy to take a punt on.
There’s a slightly obnoxious game called ‘Humiliations’ that rippled through the literary world a few years back, inspired by a David Lodge novel. Basically, people (aka industry insiders: academics, lecturers, publishers, authors) would go round and state the name of the most famous, most ‘important’ book they hadn’t read. What gives the game its lustre, its sense of danger, is its double-edged nature. ‘Winning’ the game is simultaneously losing: you could smash it by saying, I don’t know, Middlemarch, but any resulting cathartic joy is still fraught with the fear of judgement and exposure.
The fear attached to the literary version ‘Humiliations’ is one that can be overcome: granted enough time and patience, almost anyone can plough through a book. But in the theatre world, the same game would feel very different. For now, almost no one can get tickets for, say, Hamilton. Era-defining shows are disseminated in a way that’s so hierarchical, so defined by income and cultural capital, that they make medieval monastic libraries look like models of intellectual accessibility. And then once a theatre production closes, you’ve pretty much missed your chance, and have to smile wanly while everyone tells you how such-and-such-a-play has changed what X means on stage, forever.
And why did you miss it? Yup, lack of time still features, especially if you have a job, aspire to some kind of social life, need the odd night in, and prefer to occasionally have some clean clothes to wear. But also lack of disposable income (the big, unmissable productions are often also EXPENSIVE), not being in central London (where the big, unmissable productions almost all happen, by virtue of that being where the hype machine and most of the money is located). And: caring responsibilities or disability or anxiety or anything that means you lack the mental space and energy to pack your week with cultural experiences other people have told you are important.
Two years ago, my New Year’s Resolution was to try and see the big shows everyone was talking about, and to try and be a more consistent part of ‘The Conversation’ around theatre. I sort of stuck to it, because it’s really nice to be able to chew over and dissect shows in a shared, communal way. I’m so glad I got to see The Writer and to tussle over ever brilliant moment. But the more I get into impassioned arguments about it – the baby, the Dolly Parton bit in the woods, the contested ending – the more I’m aware of the irony of it being a show that’s all about elitism and tearing down systems, while just having seen it at all marks you out as one of a privileged few.
There are a few recourses. I completely recommend gobbling down the playtext of The Writer if you can find it. And there’s also increased care and attention going into performance playtexts: Oberon Books are producing some great texts for live art that would otherwise be completely ephemeral, like Shit Theatre’s DollyWould. Wonderfully, the National Theatre welcomes people in to watch recordings of past performances: you can even book a screening room and watch with friends. There’s also reading reviews, at which point longform criticism comes into its own: argh, the teeth-gnashing frustration of wanting to know what actually happened in a play and being left with a handful of near-identical 250 word precis. An undersung function of reviews is to record a performance: when I am living vicariously through them, I want them to embrace spoilers, dive into detail, record the ‘big reveal’ rather than to coyly wave an ostrich-feather fan around it. To make me feel ‘there’.
These ways of engaging with theatre have a satisfaction and validity of their own: a shoring up against the blink-and-you-miss it pressure that’s deliberately built into the theatre calendar. And that pressure is something that becomes fiercer, the further you get from the biggest venues. Since David Byrne’s announcement that the New Diorama is programming fewer artists and supporting them much more fairly, I’m thinking about how rare it is for smaller theatres to programme like that, to give new work long runs rather than sending a rapid machine gun fire of new shows out into the air, waiting for one to hit the mark. There’s an idea that it’s important to give the largest possible number of people the opportunity to create shows: but what does that opportunity really mean, if the critics, programmers, and audiences are spread too thin to give each one a meaningful level of engagement? This feels doubly true, especially in the run-up to the Edinburgh Fringe and its smorgasbord of shows-I-won’t-see, would-like-to-see. Its theatregoers pile precarious stacks of performances into each day and still feel unsatisfied, each unused hour haunted with the thought of all the undiscovered hit shows that could have filled it.
In Germany, some theatres operate on a rep model where popular shows come back year after year. I’m not saying that’s the platonic ideal (maybe it stops new work bubbling up, or confines it to studios) but it seems like a shame that there’s not more flexibility in the system, more space for the most-loved, most-needed productions to run and run at all levels, not just at the West End, where people can always get tickets for dramas that are far past their sell-by dates.
I would love to send everyone I know who’s seen Consent to see The Writer (now closed) and then to have the biggest conversation about what those two shows mean together. But that can’t really happen. And nor can so many other huge, potentially fascinating inter-show comparative discussions. A tiny handful of full-time professional critics are the only ones who can draw the threads between, say, Leave Taking, Nine Night, and Black Men Walking, which is something that so badly needs to happen but can’t, until we progress onwards to some kind of Black Mirror-type virtual reality future where all experiences are recordable and streamable.
Theatre canons live in our heads, not on bookshelves. And there’s an infinity of performances out there that we’ve already missed, forever. I’m not sure what to do about this: but perhaps, perversely, the way to deal with this inevitable time-and-space related shortcoming is to see less, and to talk and write and think about the shows we love more. To swap the treadmill for the conversations that will find new ways to make them live on.