Last week, I argued that New York has recently raised the bar for musical theatre and that London is visibly struggling to keep up with the pace at which Broadway is churning out culturally noteworthy, financially prosperous, and (most importantly) consistently entertaining musicals. This week I’m taking the stand in defence of the West End and its impressive straight theatre scene. (Straight meaning non-musical rather than heterosexual as opposed to stereotypically gay musical theatre…)
In light of the recent celebrations for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, we have all been reminded of Britain’s vast history in theatre production. This stands in contrast to that of the USA, which essentially copied what was going on here. Apparently, in 1752, a company of 12 actors from Britain was sent across the Atlantic to start a theatre in Virginia, opening with a production of The Merchant of Venice.
This initial imitation of the early West End scene set a precedent for how straight theatre on Broadway would continue up to this day. The early, mid-1900s did see a fabulous generation of American playwrights like Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, and Arthur Miller, but recently it seems as if Broadway has been a bit head over heels with its game-changing musicals and has had to rely on transfers from London to maintain its high standards when it comes to plays.
Looking at the 2015 Tonys, you might mistake it for a list from the Olivier Awards. Winners included Simon Stephen’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, David Hare’s Skylight, and Helen Mirren in The Audience by Peter Morgan, all British contenders. This year’s line up includes Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, with next year’s season set to feature the extremely well received People, Places and Things. Of course, transfers between Broadway and the West End are nothing new, but I occasionally get the impression that London is simply feeding Broadway some of its best plays – just as Broadway does for us with its musicals.
So what is London getting right with plays that it can’t seem to with musicals? Perhaps the key to London’s vibrant straight theatre programme is the (almost too) frequent turnover of plays across its venues, meaning theatre lovers have to appreciate outstanding plays while they last, compared to die hard fans of certain musicals who turn up annually in costume to rack up their autograph count. Because of their long runs, West End musicals easily become flashy staples of tourism, whilst plays are often restricted to a limited period before being left in the history books and the memory of those lucky enough to catch them. But more recently, acclaimed West End runs seem to be resulting in Broadway transfers. One example of this is A View from the Bridge, directed by Ivo van Hove at the Young Vic. This very experimental production saw an unprecedented amount of commercial success for something directed by a, for the UK, unknown director, offering a radical version of the play. It then transferred to Broadway (where van Hove is now directing The Crucible), and will go to LA for a short run in the autumn.
Yet van Hove and the Young Vic are not unique in their risky approach to putting on a play in London. Something that is increasingly true to the West End is that a lot of its plays deal overtly with current, specific, political affairs that really hit the moment. For example, the verbatim play Another World by Gillian Slovo ran briefly at the National this year, treating the polemic theme of young British people joining Islamic State forces. Another short-lived show was Future Conditional at the Young Vic, which followed a Pakistani girl applying to Oxford and middle-class London mums scrapping to get their kids into good secondary schools. Obviously, these themes will remain topical for several years, but the trick is that this play perfectly captured a moment in our generation’s complicated relationship with the education system, something susceptible to change at any moment. Compare this with Broadway’s current Long Day’s Journey into Night, for instance, written almost 60 years ago concerning general family topics, and you understand the appeal of the West End’s consistently striking tone.
West End producers are evidently conscious of presenting a large variety of plays to appeal to their diverse audiences. The National’s recent program exemplifies this perfectly: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (a majority black cast, telling the story of the godmother of blues music), Cleansed (a controversial play by Sarah Kane, directed by Katie Mitchell, one of the leading radical theatre directors in Europe), Les Blancs (a play about colonialism by Lorraine Hansberry, an important African-American writer during the Civil Rights movement), and Wonder.land (all bout the Internet age; unfortunately also among the worst musicals I have seen). So it is obvious that London has a clear sense of delivering diverse theatre that evolves with the times, ostensibly providing platforms for female directors and writers as well as black actors, something New York’s limited repertoire of plays struggles with.
By consistently hitting the pulse of the moment and always looking to give different people voices on stage, West End plays and Broadway musicals are increasingly quick to avoid falling into stereotypes, the hurdle at which musicals here and plays on Broadway have fallen. I’m not saying all shows have to be revolutionary productions or make statements that are pertinent to contemporary society, but producers and theatre directors have a certain responsibility when it comes to programming. It is time that the two biggest theatre hubs in the world balanced themselves out in terms of what form they are using to tell today’s theatrical stories.