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29th June 2022

A Theatregoer’s Lament

Aayush Chadha laments about the current state of British theatre – in what was supposed to be a review of Classic!
A Theatregoer’s Lament
Classic! Photo: Hope Mill Theatre and HER Productions.

This post was supposed to be a review for a show I watched recently (Classic! at Hope Mill Theatre), however, in my attempts to spin something together, I found myself coming up short each time. In fact, this feeling has persisted after most of my recent theatre visits which has had me wondering, does the fault lie within me, that I am such a philistine, cold-hearted reviewer that I lack any appreciation or even gratitude for the production companies putting together elaborate, unique (questionable but bear with me) performances that they invite people like me to view for free so that we may go and write about it and help them sell more tickets – or have theatre productions become so indistinguishable from one another that they contain as much character as the candy aisle in a supermarket advertising sweets with various concentrations of sugar and small differences in tastes?

Let me make some things clear on the outset, I am not ungrateful for all the hard work and skill that goes into putting a production together. I recognise that it takes an incredible amount of hard work from people who are incredibly skilled to put together a production over several months that we “reviewers/critics/keyboard warriors” are so quick to dismiss with a flick of our pens as we brandish our so called “aesthetic sense” (in some places, certain degrees might have the same effect too) as credentials for being connoisseurs of art. My lament is not against the work the performers put in (the reviewers are another matter entirely, and I would offend a big group of people if I delve into any more details).

In fact, the question I am asking here is whether all that expenditure of resources, talent and time is justified in the pursuit of producing yet one more, almost indistinguishable, flavour of candy, albeit for the brain, especially when the likes of Amazon and Netflix’s candy factories are breaking the backs of much smaller initiatives?

There is an old Indian couplet that says something to the effect of “I sought to find all the bad in others and found nothing and whence I looked inwards, I found that there was no-one worse than myself”. Whenever I start writing any critical piece, this couplet serves as my admonishment to reflect deeply on my own shortcomings as an attendee at a performance and ask myself questions like — did I understand what the creators of this performance wanted to convey? Did I ask myself questions about why something was portrayed the way it was? Did I wait around to try and talk to the people who put it together to understand what was going through their minds when they put it together? Did I take account of the feelings that arose in me as I watched a performance? 

And I must confess here, more often than not, the answer to these questions is a big NO. And I have no qualms in admitting that that plays a significant part in why I find my theatre-going experience to be so underwhelming at times. Having said that, the most memorable performances for me have been ones where these questions weren’t exercises I had to deliberately engage in but where the performance itself, through its symphonic combination of the storyline, cast, music and setting was able to nudge me towards these questions and not distract me from trying to answer them as I watched the rest of it unfold through gaudy displays of pomp and splendour.

I wouldn’t be surprised if I wasn’t alone in admitting to this (publicly or privately). One only needs to look at a bunch of reviews to spot the general pattern of – this is amongst the best shows I have ever seen (which is a line that features in a surprising number of reviews), the cast was just phenomenal, the crowd really enjoyed it, Hansel and Gretel-esque crumbs of the plot if you are lucky, or the whole plot line if you are unlucky (wonder how that ever encourages people to watch it at all, especially when its written with all the excitement of a British train timetable) and rounding it off with, “You wouldn’t want to miss it” (I always wish they write the complete sentence there so that it finishes with, “if you have nothing better to do”). 

It’s little wonder then that when you ask a fellow frequent theatre-goer (side bar: I deliberately wouldn’t want to use the C word [C**t**] here), “Oh, what were the most memorable shows you attended?”, you’d always get a non-committal answer like, “Oh, they were all so delightful, couldn’t pick one at all!” which usually was accompanied by a very curious expression, somewhere between a tapering sugar high and the dread of having received a ransom note for your children, presumably from certain “Friends of the theatre”.

Raillery aside, I have a few genuine appeals here. 

Maybe my conception of what theatre can be differs from most, but at its most fundamental level, I understand it to be a place to share stories — stories that help us escape from our usual drudgery, hold a mirror up to ourselves, discover perspectives that for years haven’t had a chance to come to the forefront, lay a foundation for bold ideas for the future and create more inclusive societies — nonetheless, amidst the rigmarole of large budget productions with their contrived storylines, glitzy promotions, army of reviewers to flood the channels of online content and smaller productions aping the same formula for commercial success, I find myself wondering if we have as attendees, in our pursuit of escaping, for a few hours, the pains and routines of our daily lives, have become complicit in nudging theatre towards it own doom?

If all we seek is escapism and entertainment, we have a wide selection to choose from by hopping onto one of the many sites on the internet with production budgets that make the local theatre companies look like tiny blips. Instead, why don’t we hold productions to higher standards, call out those that have little to offer beyond glitz and gaudiness and instead encourage those that leave lasting memories in our hearts and minds and inspire the next generation of artists? Reviewers play a substantial role here, for they have huge readerships, and instead of cosying up to productions and praising everything carte blanche, can actually be more forthright in their views of whether the performance was evocative in any respect, or just pageantry.

Those who have persisted so far with this rant must be wondering, “So, how was the play, Mr. Chadha?” and only for the sake of their curiosity, it was no Classic! 

At best, I could describe it as a perfectly adequate entertainment for Friday evening put together by a group of talented actors that reminded me of English teachers at school putting their heart and soul into a pantomime about the class readings so that they could get their students a wee bit interested in reading them and trying to achieve all this on a budget cobbled together from leftover parent teacher association funds. Like I said earlier, you definitely wouldn’t want to miss this if you have nothing better to do!

Classic! runs at Pleasance Courtyard (Pleasance One) at the Edinburgh Fringe from 3rd until 29th August.

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