Last week I heard one of my favourite actors almost lose his composure. Tom Hanks was the castaway on Desert Island Discs and talked about the impact that theatre had on him as a teenager. By the age of thirteen, he’d already had a mother and two stepmothers, and had lived in ten houses in five cities. Life was unsettled but he started going alone to the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco and there he discovered a new world. He saw ‘plays he never even knew existed,’ and when he talked of it giving him a ‘vocabulary for loneliness,‘ he was audibly moved. In these situations radio feels very intimate. As listeners, we heard him gulp and swallow and we waited as Kirsty Young gave him a moment to recover.
I could relate to that in my own way, as I, too, learned to love theatre as a teenager. Growing up in a sleepy Devon town where nothing happened I was hungry to move to London. Once there, I stretched my wings and explored what the city had to offer. Museums, galleries, cinemas, dance, and music were shiny, but for me, theatre was the jewel in London’s creative riches. I could breathe the same air as accomplished actors, famous or not, whilst knowing that the performance I’d seen was unique and ephemeral. It can’t always be good, but theatre was then, and still is, a favourite treat. A prospect to relish during a busy day, before you slide into your seat in the dark, and let it take you over.
Many plays are just confections but others have the potential to disrupt society and at times their performance has been tightly controlled. The Puritans under Oliver Cromwell banned staged plays because they feared civil unrest. Then after the Restoration, theatrical performances started up again, often in converted tennis courts. But they were quickly brought under control so that ‘the spoken word for gain’ could only be performed in a theatre that had been granted a royal patent. Initially there were just two; one in Drury Lane, the other in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and then gradually through the eighteenth century others were created. These were the Theatres Royal and several still continue today including the Theatre Royal, Haymarket and the Theatre Royal, Bath. Right up until 1843 it was illegal to perform a serious play unless it was in one of these theatres. Anything with music, however, could be freely performed and this helped to boost the popularity of opera, pantomime, music hall, and plays with musical interludes.
In 1809, a theatre itself was at the centre of unrest. The management of the licensed Covent Garden theatre, raised the prices and created boxes that could be rented. There was outrage amongst the theatre-going public and during a performance of Macbeth the audience began to riot. These riots continued for 67 nights. The theatre was filled with banners and it was difficult to hear what the actors were saying. At one point the management brought in a famous boxer and his associates in order to try to contain the mayhem but it just made things worse. These Old Price rioters, as they called themselves, ranged across the social groups and saw the price rise as a suppression of their liberty. Kemble the theatre manager was forced to lower the prices again and to issue an apology.
Today, theatre continues to explore new territory. I wrote in a previous post (A Postmodern Mystery) about the wondrous Punchdrunk with its immersive productions. Another intriguing company is You Me Bum Bum Train. I’m on their mailing list but the tickets are allocated by lottery and I haven’t yet been lucky. Anyone who does get to go to one of their pop-up performances in an unusual London location, is sworn to secrecy. A Time Out reviewer said, ‘Part of the terror and joy of it is not knowing what might be on the other side of the many, very different doors…it’s also sort of a game and sort of like nothing else on earth.’ I’ll carry on applying.
London theatre is a big draw for tourists and some Australian friends had an odd experience a few years ago. They’d heard that Judi Dench was playing in ‘Peter and Alice’ at the Noel Coward Theatre and that a small number of returns tickets were available every evening. They joined the queue, only to get right to the front and be told that they’d missed their chance for that day. Suddenly, a man dashed out of the theatre in evening dress. He thrust two top-price tickets into their hands and said, ‘It’s your lucky night,’ as he dashed into the night. They thoroughly enjoyed their treat and spent the interval speculating about who their mysterious benefactor was, and why he’d not been able to use his tickets. Their favourite theory was that he was an eminent surgeon and had just been called away to do a life-saving operation.
I’ve been keen to share my love of theatre with my children. It’s clearly worked with my elder daughter, Emma, as one of her current treats is to see all of Shakespeare’s plays. So far she’s seen quite a few at the Globe Theatre, including a gory production of Titus Andronicus that caused over a hundred people to faint. But I misjudged the situation with Molly, my younger daughter and started too early. When she was seven, Emma and I decided to take her to see ‘Anything Goes’ in London. We told her that it was a special treat and that she’d love it. She agreed happily but this was probably because she adores clothes and it was a rare chance to wear her smart hand-me-down coat. To anyone seeing us on the train that evening she looked the perfect theatre-going, middle-class wunderkind. However, she didn’t want to play ball. The performance started and within ten minutes she’d decided that she didn’t like it. She sat with her back to the stage and spent the next few hours with her arms crossed and a stony expression. Later, on the train we laid her down on a seat and she went straight to sleep, snoring loudly. People peered across to see where the noise was coming from and instead of seeing the corpulent banker they presumably expected, there was just a very small girl in her best coat; tired out after a rebellious evening at the theatre.
And here’s a theatre-related bonus. I recently met the fourth link in my chain interview experiment. Holly is a young theatre director and is currently associate director on the National Theatre’s award-winning production of People, Places and Things. I learned what her work involves and she told me about the things that inspire her. We talked about her successes and also about a recent challenging experience.