Sunday, 25 September 2011

Theatrical Questions


I hear that audiences in Beijing and Shanghai are currently flocking to theatres to see a stage version of Mama Mia! sung in Mandarin. Given that musicals are not part of the Chinese cultural tradition this is a curious phenomenon and one which raises questions about the globalisation of culture. Does, for example, globalisation inevitably involve cultural dilution or can it – more positively ­– be instrumental in cultural cross-fertilisation which leads us to rich veins of new creativity? The question is more likely to end in a discussion than a conclusion.

I was recently asked a question: “Do you go to the theatre often?” to which I replied “No, not really” before going on to roll out my rehearsed excuse for this cultural blind-spot which asserts that there are too many productions of the same old plays. Who needs yet another version of The Cherry Orchard or of Hamlet ? I’ve seen them before. Can’t we have something new so that I might be persuaded to buy into the concept of theatre more readily? But I was told that my response is typical of one who presumes that theatres are where you go to watch plays; and that plays comprise scripted dialogue, spoken by actors and visually enhanced by scenery, props and the occasional special effect – all neatly packaged into periods of time known as ‘acts’, some of which are separated by ice-cream breaks and the whole of which commences at just the time when you might like to be settling down to dinner.

Over the past few months, therefore, I have challenged my assumptions by making an effort to see more theatrical performances (I deliberately refrain from using the word ‘play’) than usual. I have seen them in a variety of venues: a cinema, a room over a pub, a converted industrial space, an un-converted industrial space, an old music-hall, a modern provincial theatre and yes, a more traditional West End theatre! Not one of the performances I saw could be described as fitting the stereotype of my prejudice. Each one of them challenged some aspect or other of that stereotype and compelled me to reconsider.

Reconsidering prejudices can be an uncomfortable process, as in this case, which required that I buy tickets in order to subject myself, voluntarily, to whatever proposition was being presented. I can only guess at their motives but I assume that, when they are writing a play or devising a performance, the creators do not do so aimlessly. They must have a positive intention to appeal to their audience; perhaps to inform, to entertain, to stimulate or to shock. In some cases I find the intention is clear; in others it is less so and I, their audience, am entitled to make up my own mind as to the point, or pointlessness, of the piece. I have come across at least one suspected instance of “the emperor’s new clothes” but, set against this, many positive experiences of pleasure and enlightenment.

I have emerged with a resolve to “go to the theatre” more often but; how do I decide which performances to attend and which to shun? As a rule of thumb I would opt for the novel and against the repeat performance. The Cherry Orchard and Hamlet  are undoubtedly classics of their genres but to see them performed yet again, albeit by different companies and in different ways, would encourage habitual behaviour patterns just when I am trying to shake them off. My inner critic is telling me to search instead for the future classics of the theatre and I am not about to rule out Mama Mia! sung in Mandarin until I have seen it with my own eyes, heard it with my own ears and engaged fully with the cultural globalisation debate that it generates.

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