It might seem like I am beating a War Horse. This isn’t my intention however Joey is leading the band when it comes to the increasingly prevalent metonymy of theatre and spectacle; a confusion of terms that should be put to pasture. To be clear, the thesis here is not that theatre has no business waving its bejewelled garters but there is an issue when the innate spectacle of theatre has rendered spectacle as theatre.
It would be a terrible loss to culture if another art form went the way of Hollywood hyperbole with each show striving to be bigger and shinier than the last. It wouldn’t be enough to tell a universal story that resonates with every individual soul. The storyteller would also need a fancy hat. And it is this hat that would be plastered on the posters and gain the media attention. My point is, while the hat is indeed fancy a homunculus in a hat is still a homunculus.
I am not immune to Bartonesque touting of colour, lights and sparkle. Nor would I ever want to be. There are certain elements of theatre that are inherently dazzling. Praise be to the Muses. Once in a lifetime casting, musical romanticism or outstanding staging all have their place and each their own merits.
If a show has a ‘dream’ cast, and I’m looking at you Miss Daisy, that is one of the numerous joys of theatre. The opportunity to see a virtuoso performance, in any medium, is something that should be savoured. Admittedly, there are some who would see the posters and get all a-tingle at the opportunity to see Mrs. Potts and Darth Vader on stage. Those marketing the performance know this and rightly mention this. Well, they say Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones but we all know what they are thinking. Another example, I went to see Geoffrey Rush acting not to see a musical. He could have been doing platform announcements and I would have been just as excited. The musical was great and what he brought to the role of Pseudolus was something unique in Rush’s interpretation, a gamble that only someone so talented would take. A big name cast is often a way to attract audiences. Come for the stars stay for the art.
Similarly, musical theatre necessarily brings a host of expectations that emanate from the glittery side of the wand. Admittedly, I don’t go musicals. If it comes to it I can warble a show tune or six but I wouldn’t tell a date that I have in interest in ‘musical theatre’ (for a variety of reasons). However, some observations: it seems that substandard books still attract an audience because they feature songs of their favourite musician, subculture or era. When an unassuming audience member attends and expects the same kind of excitement or connection and is left unfulfilled due to lacklustre production values then this hapless theatre goer might consider this one experience indicative and start thinking that they dislike musicals. The next step is therefore they believe all theatre is disappointing. While the majority of musicals are more openly striving for escapism and spectacle that does not mean that the boards should creak from the weight of the stage tricks. The songs should stay with you more than the memory of falling chandeliers.
Here I think it is time to mention the giant gorilla in the room. ‘King Kong’ is very clearly about the ape himself and yet occasionally they try to confine it to a musical or a work of theatre. Why? The website is ‘King Kong Live on Stage’. The massive appeal is King Kong. The brochure spruiks circus acts and animatronics. This is a spectacle ‘like nothing you’ve ever witnessed’. There is highly accomplished musical talent attached, with a collection of 1930s era songs. See the above paragraph for other expectations. This is ‘The Epic Musical Event’, with the definite article and all. It would be more appropriate to say that is an epic event, perhaps even ‘the’ epic event without bringing musical theatre into it. While the creative team attached is definitely noteworthy this isn’t why people are going to see King Kong live on stage. It is a multimillion dollar production, said as if it guarantees quality, but the cast could be reciting platform announcements. That gorilla will be spectacular though.
A beast with a similar colour is ‘War Horse’. It seems that when mentioning this play what is actually being spoken about is ever and always the puppetry. Puppetry is certainly a fine art unto itself. It is just as valid to see puppetry as to see any other performance but people feel compelled to say how great a play it was when they mean how skilful the puppetry was. This is like saying you are seeing King Kong for the music. I am seeing War Horse for the puppets, this is why I absolutely had to be in the front row.
Before I explain when this theatrical aphasia first came to my attention, I would like to make mention of ‘Global Creatures’. They are an entertainment group involved with both War Horse and King Kong. To clarify, these productions are incredible and spectacular. They were also part of ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ and ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ arena shows. It is thrilling and magical to be part of a culture where it is possible to see dragons and dinosaurs ‘live’ on stage. The company site mostly mentions the creatures created. There is no need to attach theatrical pretence to these shows the creatures are the entertainment. They are wonderful entertainment at that and Global Creatures do what they do very well. But what they do is puppetry.
Of War Horse they say: “War Horse is a remarkable tale of courage, loyalty and friendship. At its heart are astonishing life-size puppets, created by South Africa's Handspring puppet company, who will bring breathing, galloping, full-scale horses to life on the stage.”From the War Horse site comes the mention of the creative talent which I personally find most telling: “Based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo | Adapted by Nick Stafford | In association with Handspring Puppet Company”. The play seems developed to display the puppeteers’ art to full effect. They know it; it essentially says it there on the label. Nothing wrong with this but when someone goes to see the ‘theatre event of the decade’ and there are parts of the experience that are less than then the next step is to consider all theatre disappointing .
The use of the word theatre to mean spectacle galloped into my realisation during the 2011 Tony awards. I find the best play category to be fascinating in that it not only sets the standard for drama but it also illustrates what society is responding to. Some will say that it only illustrates what the theatre going crowd is responding to however I would argue that this crowd does not exist in a vacuum, ignoring the horrible outcome if they tried, and it is as valid a looking glass as the Top 10 news stories or any such over view. The best play category should, one would think, be awarded to a play where all elements came together to present something that is in some way transcendent. Over the course of the awards they had segments from each play nominated and a brief outline from one of the cast members, accompanied by a clip, to explain the play. The nominees that year were: ‘Jerusalem’, a play about a Quixotic struggle to retain high ideals in a low culture, ‘Good People’, which explores circumstance, class and says ‘there but for the grace’, ‘The Motherf**ker with the Hat’, a comedy about love and questions of morality and ‘War Horse, an antiwar story as outlined above. With the majority of the clips and descriptions it was about the play itself, the stories that needed to be told. And yet, with ‘War Horse’ it seemed to be all about the puppets. The experience became the play itself.
“But the play explores courage, loyalty and friendship” assert those who refuse to believe they are seeing a puppet show. Yes, I reply, but so does ‘The Cat in the Hat’. These themes become secondary to the effects. Originally, War Horse was a book for younger readers. In adapting it for the stage the choice was made to try to make the material work with a wider audience. Does the material handle the growing pains? I ask if it should be expected to. The Harry Potter books were written for children but adults can enjoy them just as much, a fortunate few enjoy them more, but the material is the same. Even when some feel compelled to purchase copies with covers designed to belie the actual reading matter, moody photography or similar to indicate cultural sophistication, the book is unchanged. Instead, ‘War Horse’ adapts the material for a wider audience, as if Alan Ball adapted ‘Harry Potter’ so the audience feels justified in any conversation of displaying their cultural sophistication.
This is where it is useful to clearly define the terms and avoid calling one thing by another name. There are people who, through circumstance or curse, have never been to the theatre. If their initiation into the hallowed halls is a production that seemingly every one is raving about then expectations would be high. If the notion is that this is the very best example of a play and something seems weaker it would lead to thinking such that either theatre is not for them or worse that they don’t understand theatre and keep them away through the desire to avoid cultural embarrassment. However, if the hats used in the production are the reason for the excitement then critics and most importantly the media should openly declare that the play is actually a vehicle for millinery pyrotechnics. A children’s book is just this, despite the cover, and while exemplary on its own terms should not be compared to ‘War and Peace’. One does not actually read Playboy for the articles. Honesty and realisation.
I have front row tickets to War Horse, I want to see the puppets and be as close as I can. I am seeing Driving Miss Daisy because of the cast, the script has moments but it is a performer’s piece. I was drawn to ‘A Clockwork Orange’ because of the script but others appreciate the physicality. I have no problem admitting that I do go for the spectacle, but not all the time. What needs to be identified is that theatre is dynamic and spectacular. It doesn’t have to prove it. If the focus shifts from stunning the people with theatre tricks to entertaining the people with theatre then the audience experience will expand beyond the puppet shows and freak shows. People don’t know what they are missing because they aren’t being told.