I remember really clearly that before I moved to the South, one of the single things I was looking forward to the most was being able to go to the National Theatre whenever I damn well pleased. Not just any theatre, I specifically awaited my spectatorial debut at the National Theatre with my usual disproportionate eagerness. There is something about it being The National -THE National – Theatre that gives the definite articles a grandeur that The Donmar Warehouse and The Almeida don’t have, and don’t pretend to have either.
In light of this, it will probably amuse you to know that I didn’t actually pay to see a single production at the theatre itself until this year, a good three years after I moved to Oxford. Then, within the space of about three months, I went to two.
When I was at school I used to go to National Theatre Live at the Tyneside Cinema what felt like all the time. In reality, it almost certainly wasn’t all of the time, because I was a schoolkid, and thinking back I’m not even sure where I got the cash to go the times that I did because I was very bad with money then. I remember, though, I at least saw The Cherry Orchard, King Lear, Timon of Athens and Helen Mirren in The Audience. I saw NT productions when they came on tour too; I went to One Man, Two Governors and Travelling Light at the Newcastle Theatre Royal. I made a point of going, it was like my hobby.
2016 has been a big year, in many ways. One of the smallest ways in which it has been significant is that it’s been a big year for me and theatre. I wrote my dissertation on women in post-war British theatre, British politics took a massive turn for the theatrical and I finally got my act together and got to the National Theatre.
This year I saw two productions at The National; The Deep Blue Sea in June, and The Seagull in October. For very separate reasons, I am very sentimental about both plays. The Deep Blue Sea is one of the sincerest and most insightful looks into unrequited love and depression I think I’ve ever read; and I saw a very very NSFW production of The Seagull in Newcastle when I was 17 (I use the term sentimental very loosely here, as in I have a core memory of wanting to fold myself backwards into the collapsable chair). The Seagull, like most famous Chekhov, is fun to probe around and see how people are translating it; I know The Deep Blue Sea so well that it’s words have ceased to surprise me, though they have not ceased to resonate. In very different ways, they are beautiful, funny and sad.
As I left the performance of The Seagull it struck me that I’d really like to go to The National Theatre just one time and leave thinking something other than the set had been my favourite part of the performance. The stages at The National, by anyone’s standards, are vast, and to give credit to the company’s creative teams they really know how to use them. The sets of both the productions were physically wondrous. The set of The Deep Blue Sea cast open the whole of Hester’s Ladbroke Grove boarding house into deep colours and translucent walls. The set of The Seagull had a lake and flowing stream; I kid you not.
From my point of view, massive theatrical spaces are a double-edged sword. They allow you to do incredible things (like putting an actual working stream onstage, OMG). They also make me feel a little bit lost, or if not actually lost very disconnected from the onstage action. Because my formative theatrical experiences took place in theatres where I could literally lean forwards and inhale cigarette smoke drifting up from the stage to the gallery (did that – 2011, The Almeida – it was Penelope Wilton’s cigarette), something in the back of my mind finds the vast stages of the National Theatre dissatisfying.
In spite of loving the plays, and knowing in advance that I do, I have come away from both loving the set, and not the plays themselves as I had seen them then.
As I said before, I wrote my dissertation on women in post-war British Theatre; specifically looking at the way that critical pre-conception influences audience reception of drama. This essentially boiled down into a six-month-long, hard look at the almost unnoticed role which assumption and prejudice, on a social and literary level, play in the simplest of spectatorial acts. I looked at several fictional women (probably too many, definitely too many to get a First) who were variously misconstrued, variously pigeon-holed by their audiences.
I looked at how The Deep Blue Sea was originally received in the tradition of Fallen Woman narratives, essentially framing Hester Collyer as silly upper class slut (contemporary critics stop only just short of openly saying this) rather than oppressed and depressed. I looked at how Harold Pinter’s Betrayal is not a love story, and if you try to read it as a love story of course you’re going to think, like critics did, that Emma is a silly upper class slut (are you spotting a theme here?). I lambasted the emergence of said theme to my dissertation supervisor, and she asked me bluntly what the hell I had expected. I looked at how David Hare’s female characters were first taken for hammy socio-political caricatures, for a bit of light relief.
What emerged was that audiences’ and critics’ preconceptions’ of pieces and characters are key to their ultimate manifestation. I think this showed through in both of the plays I saw at The National this year, and it contributed in no small part to my feeling of disappointment.
It occurred to me that I’ve been fantastically fortunate to see two plays which held great importance to me in such a short space of time. It occurred to me equally that I wouldn’t have gone to see them if I hadn’t known already that they were important to me. Going to The National is expensive, bordering on prohibitively so, and I wasn’t going to take the risk on a play I might not like. The result of this approach, though, I have realised is inevitable disappointment. Think of how many people trash-talk film adaptations of literature; it is hard to be entirely satisfied with another person’s interpretation of a work you’ve emotionally subsumed, particularly when their interpretation rather than yours is paraded as a work of art in its own right. Theatrical interpretation is very similar. Another double-bind exists: going to see plays you know, and adore, hems you in between the director’s interpretation/preconception and your own.
A tempting mistake to make in interpreting The Deep Blue Sea could be to ignore the social judgements projected on Hester by the other characters, which were reflected by her contemporary audiences. The play does not endorse these judgements but nor does it ignore them; it sees them there and challenges them, in a way this year’s production did not do. It’s not a play about a woman in love, which was the way it was played out, it’s a play about a woman struggling. I found that The Seagull was played out as a consciously Chekhovian play, which, ironically is absolutely the opposite to “the point” of Chekhov. It was comedic when more naturalistic delivery would make it sad and sexy, and it was sad and sexy when the text itself is actually quite funny.
When I was wandering around the foyer during the interval of The Seagull (post- frantic scrabble around for a phone charger, reflecting somewhat on the misplacement of sad sexiness at hand) I saw the poster advertising the upcoming production of Hedda Gabler. And it looks great, Ruth Wilson is great, and for years the only vaguely authentic thoughts I considered about love came straight out of John Gabriel Borkman, so I’ve definitely got time for Ibsen. And I thought: I want to take the very favourable chance that I’ll like this play and buy a ticket, but I probably won’t.
The National Theatre, as I’ve intimidated before, is hella expensive. Even their crazy-cheap “Friday Rush” offer is still pretty pricey- £20 a time- and seems vaguely equivalent to an online bunfight. It comes to the point where you can’t take the risk that you might enjoy something when you’re investing a good forty quid in it -and that’s if you book months in advance and happen to get lucky with seats. So you go for a play you think you know you like, and leave yourself and your emotional investment at the mercy of directorial interpretation.
Broadly, I know it’s a privilege to be able to scrimp and save and find a way into witnessing what The National is like at this moment in its history. But it’s sad that the National Theatre- which was started in the 60s as a kind of cultural NHS- is now prohibitively expensive, compounded by the further shame of blase direction. This theatre particular has for a long time been a pioneer of the “State of the Nation” play, as kind of drama which reflects both the social surroundings of both its production and reception. In don’t know if emphasis on visuality (to the detriment of interpretation) and an alienating pricing can be a positive hallmark of any time.
On the note of visuality, on the air of exclusivity, on something else which unites the two productions I went to see this summer/autumn: during both intervals, I hiked my way up to the roof of The National, where you get one of the best views of the Thames, and watched the different micro-stages of the evening for twenty minutes.