Friday, 30 June 2017

No excuse at all

It would be silly to announce that 'theatre is dead' (although it is fair to note that it is far from the dominant artistic medium in 2017). I have seen work - David Leddy's Coriolanus Vanishes springs to mind - that affirm the dynamism of theatre, and while I can't say that I enjoy everything at Buzzcut, the festival has an admirable vibrancy as well as some exciting performances.

It would probably be equally silly to say criticism is dead, but after reading the reviews of Jane Eyre, I am not willing to say it is healthy. Produced by the National Theatre, this adaptation was a lazy chronological romp through a well-beloved novel that failed to deal with the problem of a romantic hero locking his wife up in the attic.




I don't want to be joyless about this, but having the abused wife wander about singing Cee Lo Green's Crazy isn't just a breach of taste: it is an abdication of moral responsibility. A love song about mutual dependency lacks the gravitas to accompany a house fire that ends in suicide.

Perhaps because I am in a minority about this, I am raging about the National Theatre's Jane Eyre. It is one of the most tedious experiences that I have had in a theatre, and its version of 'the English Touring style' barely hides the witless dramaturgy that takes a romantic novel and converts it into a three hour long exploration of how thoughtless contemporary theatre can be.

Let's start with the easy targets. Jane Eyre is about a romance between a governess - abused as a child by a vicious aunt and a religious schooling - and an aristocrat who has some dark secrets. One of these secrets is that he has locked his wife in the attic. 

When the wife eventually escapes the attic, burns down the house and jumps off the roof, singing Cee Lo Green's Crazy is not a bold dramatical choice. It's a fucking insult, and an instance of how this adaptation repeatedly fails to think before it acts. For those not paying attention, being exotic and darkly sensual is not an excuse for locking away women.

Second easy target: the ensemble came up with a
neat choreography to represent a ride in a carriage. So they repeat it. Three times. Yes, it was cool the first time, the way they all jogged about, pretending to be both passengers and the horses. But your production is three hours long. Couldn't you have just assumed the journey?

And the length itself... the purpose of adaptation might be to reinterpret. Certainly, with a familiar text like Jayne Eyre, there are certain scenes they could be removed. A teaching scene, for example, doesn't need to followed by a conversation about the experience of teaching. I've got a train to catch, and I don't need a reminder of the protagonist's most recent action.

The desire to round out Jane's character causes problems - having seen her at home, at school, teaching and travelling, her personality's development is fully explicable. Never mind it takes ages for her to meet Rochester (and, yes, the novel is centred around that romance): when he does turn up, his awkwardness and mystery is attractive because there is some dramatic tension about him. What has he been doing? Why is he so odd? Jane, meanwhile, is so clearly a product of all the activity the audience has spent an hour watching that she lacks any interest. 



Oh - and just because a man pretending to be a dog gets a laugh, don't put it in every scene. Yes, we get it. Hilarious. 


But my rage is not directed at the company. It's directed at the critics who can't tell the difference between bog-standard theatricality and an imaginative direction. The show has received four and five star reviews for rolling out an over familiar bunch of tricks (abstract set like a 'climbing frame', characters pretending to be Jane's interior monologue). 

One duff production is no evidence that theatre is dead, but poverty of criticism is a worry: if this kind of performance is accepted without caveats, then what motivation do companies have to think carefully about the reasons for staging a play? 

Or it is possible that I demand certain thongs from a play, and this fails to provide them, making my opinion a valid one, but not quite as important as I am making out...

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