Thursday, 21 February 2013

The Play's The Thing (Within The Play)

Theatre about theatre is big in the West End at the moment.

You can see actors acting as actors in Kiss Me, Kate at the Old Vic, in Our Country's Good at the new St James Theatre, and as auditionees in A Chorus Line, the ultimate musical about wanting to be in a musical at the London Palladium.

Within the last few years, there have been revivals of similarly reflexive shows: Michael Frayn's highly successful Noises Off, the hugely enjoyable Crazy For You, and the, to my mind slightly dated, A Chorus of Disapproval at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

It's hardly a new phenomenon: to my knowledge plays within plays date back to at least Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night's Dream and, of course, Hamlet). I wonder if classical scholars could put me right on the theory that this technique has existed for as long as plays themselves. Art of most mediums is self-reflexive: painters produce self-portraits, writers pen autobiographies. Naturally, there's something very self-conscious about performing, so the fact that this bleeds into the shows' structures themselves shouldn't be too surprising.

Howard Sherman, in his brilliantly exhaustive piece on the topic, writes as follows:
I should say that the dictum of “write what you know” is not unique to literature, and we see countless self-portraits by artists, musical compositions reflecting the composer’s mood or experience, and so on.
And so it is no surprise that playwrights, book writers, composers and lyricists would be drawn to the world they inhabit, both in loathing and in love.
But, as usual, I'm still wondering: "Why this, why now?"

Both Our Country's Good and A Chorus Line seem to spring from a time of difficult funding. The former was written in 1988, perhaps in protest to Thatcherite arts cuts and philistinism. The show requires a sparse set and a small cast of 10 hard-working doubled-up actors to create 22 parts. (You can even produce it on a university theatre soc's tight budget, as I can attest.) The critics are suggesting today's London provides a time ripe for revival.

Similarly, A Chorus Line has got to be the "cheapest" musical I've ever seen staged. Sure, there's plenty of lighting and a gorgeous high-quality orchestra in the Palladium's current production, but if you compare the simple mirrored backdrop and stark "white line" set to the astonishingly complex pyrotechnics of Wicked or We Will Rock You, it must be fairly inexpensive to run. Back in 1975, wikipedia tells me "At the time, the Public [Theater] did not have enough money to finance the production. They borrowed $1.6 million in order to produce the show." Noises Off and A Chorus of Disapproval are also products of the 1980s. Perhaps there was something particular in that decade that drew playwrights into themselves, and prompted them to create more reflexive drama than at other times in history. Financial constraints? A lack of support? Changes in media with the growth of video and TV channels?

And in 2013, we can tick off that list again: financial constraints - check. A lack of government support - check. Changes in media with the growth of YouTube and online streaming - check, check.

Unfortunately, we can't know what prompted Shakespeare's plays within plays in 1595 and 1600ish, apart from the fact that they make damn good plot devices in each.

Yes, it's a bit self-indulgent. Yes, it rather reinforces luvvie stereotypes. But both OCG and ACL are really powerful pieces of drama about the power of theatre, and I'm happy both are playing to modern audiences in London at the moment.

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