All the world’s a stage

Tom Sutcliffe laments the limited opportunities for British audiences to enjoy lesser-known and new material

To read, mark, learn and inwardly digest is as important for theatre and opera audiences as for church congregations. But how can even modern classics like Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night get seen and digested outside London, let alone new plays that have not proved hits with audiences or critics? The repertories of the Sheffield Crucible or West Yorkshire Playhouse are crafted on commercial not cultural principles – which is also sadly true of the National Theatre under Nicholas Hytner. The Birmingham Rep this year (when it is being rebuilt – there is always money for buildings in Britain, never for employing actors in an ensemble) includes few real ‘plays’ at all. At least Opera North in Leeds adheres to traditional principles – servicing its audience with the great works for which opera is known, as Covent Garden does. But our regional theatres do not ask themselves what fine plays the audience has not had any chance to get to, or what new works deserve an airing. Theatre companies aim to impress, to sell tickets, and to move on and preferably up.

Restraint and sincerity

Despite the long-running pervasive musicals that mass tourism has brought, London can still of course do well theatrically. At the Apollo Theatre Anthony Page’s production of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey (till August) is performed with extraordinary restraint and sincerity by David Suchet and Laurie Metcalf as the retired star actor James Tyrone and his morphine-addicted wife Mary. With Trevor White and the talented young Kyle Soller as the two Tyrone sons, O’Neill’s autobiographical epic is filled full of authentic bile and frustration.

But how seriously should we take the theatre of life, so lovingly represented here – full of illusions and tensions as inescapable as if it were Sartre’s Huis clos? Nothing happens to the Tyrones – whose famous father (like O’Neill’s in life) is a fading retired trouper – except the demon drink (they are Irish Americans). I did long for something Ibsenite to happen to this psychological stasis. Mary’s reversion to dope lacks the bitter taste of the final scene in Ghosts where Mrs Alving’s son develops the madness of tertiary syphilis as we watch. The Tyrones drown their pain, but why should we care? Page and Suchet spare us the self-regarding artifice of Laurence Olivier in the play’s last major London revival.

An Australian production

At the Barbican Theatre the Sydney production of Botho Strauss’s Big and Small, in a new crisp de-Anglicised version by Martin Crimp, was staged with immaculate discipline by Benedict Andrews, brilliantly close-up in focus. With Cate Blanchett in the omnipresent major role of Lotte audiences got an equally riveting demo of precisely defined, strongly characterized acting. Blanchett and her husband Andrew Upton run the Sydney Theatre Company which now seems top quality all through. I wished the play were less tight-lipped about its supporting characters, wonderfully performed, never too showy. Lotte is not more interesting than the others, just more present. There are incidents but no plot.

Botho Strauss is funnier and less pretentious than Harold Pinter – in the same neighbourhood. It is good if such Barbican imports remind us how Hytner’s National Theatre is missing quite a few tricks. Australia, though an even more impoverished theatrical landscape than Britain, can still be challenging. With Blanchett and various doublings this was a cast of 14 – which is the minimum to be able to tackle Shakespeare.

The O’Neill has five actors (commercially attractive), and most new plays at the Royal Court or even at the National use no more than seven. English National Opera last did a new opera seven years ago – Gerald Barry’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kamp. Wolfgang Rihm’s Jakob Lenz is not new – indeed it was staged rather more potently by Pierre Audi at the Almeida in 1987. But ENO went in with Edward Hall’s Hampstead Theatre to give it a new airing that offered young Sam Brown an extravagant opportunity to show his paces as a director.

Sound effects

The libretto is based on Büchner’s story Lenz – an account of the promising young playwright who fell for an ex-adored of Goethe’s, went mad and died young – having been raised by a Lutheran pastor father in Lithuania who was obsessed with sin and savage corporal punishment. Lenz tries to drown himself, and following that hint Brown’s designer Annemarie Woods filled the small stage with muddy water, reeds and rushes, and a chapel-like structure in front of a Caspar David Friedrich landscape. Andrew Shore was much too old for the title role (taken very well by Richard Jackson in Audis production) but gave his all. Jonathan Best sang beautifully as the Alsacian pastor Oberlin who befriended Lenz in his final decline. Rihm’s music is all sound effects with echoes of Lutheran choraling: nothing very worthwhile to sing or say. Brown showed flair managing it all, though his liking for rococo costumes for Lenz’s mate Kaufman and the girlfriend Friedeicke seemed bizarre. The opera is less interesting than Lenz’s or Büchner’s plays. Brilliant interpretations, but all three theatrical experiences of nothing very consequential. ND