Relations between the two great English-speaking theatre communities have always been close, but these days Shaftesbury Avenue and Times Square have an extra spring in their step. Both London and New York are attracting talent and it is to the stage that the gifted and the extraordinary are turning in order to explore a complex world.
Hot tickets are the lifeblood of the theatre. They create excitement and energise an art form written off as a moribund anachronism many times before. Now we have two hot tickets advancing towards each other somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. From New York comes Hamilton, which sounds to those who have yet to see the production like a strange hybrid, a conceit that uses rap and hip-hop to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s Founding Fathers. It is currently heading for the refurbished Victoria Palace Theatre in London for an October opening and seems likely to repeat its New York success. In exchange, Uncle Sam will take delivery of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child with which author JK Rowling has conquered the stage as comprehensively as she has mastered the printed book and the cinema screen. The New York production is scheduled to open at the Lyric Theatre in April.
Both shows are runaway hits but they have an influence that spreads far beyond the confines of the commercial theatre, attracting new audiences, inspiring fresh talent, sowing the seeds for a new generation of aspirant performers, writers and directors. One of the driving forces behind Pottermania’s arrival on the London stage is producer Sonia Friedman, whose hand is generally to be discerned whenever a cleverly composed package of talents opens in the West End. If we are in a golden age of theatre, then Friedman is one of its founding mothers. She has been a leading light among the growing number of female artistic directors who hold sway at such theatres as the Donmar Warehouse, the Royal Court and the Tricycle. London is a hothouse of creativity, where rivalry is fierce but friendly and there can be little doubt that such a grinding level of competition has produced healthy results in the quality of performance and production.
It is surely a reliable barometer of the rude health of London theatre that a number of former artistic directors are setting up shop this autumn in the commercial theatre. Marianne Elliott, whose National Theatre credits include War Horse, launches her new company Elliott Harper in October with Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle at Wyndhams, while Dominic Dromgoole, erstwhile boss of Shakespeare’s Globe, settles down for 12 months from October with a year-long season devoted to the life and work of Oscar Wilde at the Vaudeville Theatre. And Nicholas Hytner, with business partner Nick Starr, is boldest of all. Having run the National Theatre with consummate skill, the two Nicks have built a 900-seat theatre in the shadow of Tower Bridge that is bound to be a hotbed of gossip and wholesale theatricality. The new theatre opens its doors in October with a new play about the early days of the young revolutionaries Marx and Engels.
Business is booming. Julian Bird, chief executive of trade association the Society of London Theatre, happily presides over steadily increasing figures. Bird has no doubt that the theatre is currently in a very healthy state.
“I very much agree with the idea that we are in a golden age of theatre. You only have to look at the figures in London and for the UK in general and you see that the number of people coming through the doors of our theatres continues to rise year on year. On stage and backstage we are creating product to an incredible standard.”
Overall the West End produced a gross box office revenue of £644.7m in 2016, up from £633.7m the previous year. Average audiences increased from 776 to 801 people and the average ticket price reached £45, approximately half of what one would pay on Broadway.
Bird points to the emergence of “younger commercial producers who have different ideas and new ways of doing things”, and he takes some satisfaction from the willingness of high profile stars to return to the theatre. “A lot of film and television A-listers want to take time out from their screen work to go back to the stage, and how great is that? The theatre is very versatile. It can provide escapism and entertainment and it can also make us think.”
Michael Billington, the veteran theatre critic of The Guardian, is not wholly persuaded by the golden age theory; but he’ll contribute two cheers to the mood of optimism. “There’s certainly an awful lot of talent and energy out there and it’s especially striking to see the quality of the current generation of women writers such as Lucy Prebble, Lucy Kirkwood and Alice Birch.”
Does Billington believe that standards in general are much higher? “There’s a whole new generation of directors such as Robert Icke at the Almeida and Sally Cookson, whose production of Jane Eyre was seen at the National recently, who are clearly very talented. For a lot of this group of writers, if you are asked to do a classic play, you don’t do it straight. You re-imagine it.
“And I sometimes pine for a more conventional and straightforward way of doing things. The definition of what constitutes a play is constantly being questioned.”
QUALITY AND QUANTITY
Billington concedes that fewer real turkeys are managing to flap onto the West End stage. “There’s nothing like the scale of bad theatre which there used to be. The rubbish, the tax loss musicals, have been cleared away. And the quantity of theatre has definitely increased. The demand for our presence as critics is as intense as it has ever been.”
Writer Michael Simkins is both a much in-demand actor and a wry observer of the thespian’s lot. He argues that it is social media that has boosted the appeal of a certain type of theatre, especially among a younger audience, and is powering the interest in the art form.
“I’m 60 now and I find myself struggling to keep up with the pace,” he admits. “Where is the centre of the British theatre now? It’s hard to know where the new hotshots are. And it’s as if there are two mainstreams now. I stood in the bar of a West End theatre and looked at all the young people chatting about this actor and that director and I’m afraid that I felt slightly out of place.”
Theatre is truly international now, as evidenced by the emergence in British theatre of Belgian director Ivo Van Hove. His reputation in this country was sealed by a production of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge that stripped away the vestiges of the play’s original location and emphasised the universal and the tragic in the piece with a minimalist design of sparse social context. Having directed a well-received Hedda Gabler at the National, van Hove now joins forces with Lee Hall whose credits include Billy Elliott, for a stage version of the 1970s film Network. Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston plays the TV anchorman at the end of his tether. Such a combination of talents should produce great theatre.
Broadway continues to be dominated by musicals including revivals of classics, jukebox compilations and the strikingly original which, like Hamilton, seizes the moment. But Broadway can also absorb A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath at the John Golden Theatre, in which Ibsen’s Nora, the most famous runaway in theatre, returns after many years to her hearth and home. There’s a visit from London’s Royal Court of Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children at the Samuel J Friedman Theatre from the end of November, and Mark Rylance brings his London hit Farinelli and the King to the Belasco from the beginning of December.
For British fans, Clive Owen makes a rare stage appearance in a revival of M. Butterfly. David Henry Hwang’s play is based on the true-life romance between a French diplomat and an opera singer whom the diplomat mistakes for a woman. The production can be seen at the Cort Theatre from October. The Time plays of JB Priestley are not as frequently staged as once they were and it is a surprise to see his Time and the Conways moving into the American Airlines Theatre in September. Playing the matriarchal Mrs Conway is Elizabeth McGovern back on home soil after many years in Britain, most recently playing Cora, the Countess of Grantham, in Downton Abbey.
Oscar winner Glenda Jackson returned in triumph to the stage last year when playing King Lear at the Old Vic and her theatrical renaissance continues with a revival of Albee’s Three Tall Women in which she is joined by Laurie Metcalf, a frequent Tony Award winner for her stage work, but an actor who is better known as Roseanne’s sister in the eponymous sitcom. The production opens at the end of February but the venue is to be confirmed. On this evidence there are as many great theatre nights on Broadway as there are in London. The golden age is here to stay.