The trouble with deciding what to see at the theatre is that it is less a question of whether the show will be any good than trying to work out whether it might mean something to you - going to the theatre is a bit like going on a blind date. No matter how highly recommended the production, if you don't feel that spark, you're going to come away disappointed. By the same token, it's no surprise that you can fall in love with a rough, ugly, flawed old thing because of a look, a joke, a bit of theatrical magic that dazzles or uplifts you. It definitely helps to go with low expectations. But isn't that true of everything in life?
I keep trying to come up with rules that will help me decide what to see: Only go to fringe productions because of the intimate setting, the rough and ready authenticity, the as-yet undiscovered future knights and dames etc. But then you see something so arse-bendingly awful that you think why not stick to the big West End shows with their amazing sets, top-notch casts and tried-and-tested playwrights? After all if something has survived a hundred years, it can't be so bad. But, alas, it can get awfully tired.
I have tried being prescriptive - avoiding domestic dramas, anything that tackles race issues, anything that portrays or mentions rape. I have tried being adventurous and all-embracing - I have seen two Forced Entertainment shows, for chrissakes, both of which feature in my list of top five worst shows I have seen ever. The second was effectively a very polite form of theatrical mugging (by which I mean stealing, not making funny faces). You handed over your money (£14, as I recall) turned up at the theatre and then sat in bemused silence for 90 minutes while two actors took it in turns to read from a book. They hadn't even learnt their lines! It was like watching the recording of a radio show but without the silent in-jokes and hilarious mimed joshing that you imagine might go on behind the scenes at such events. The book was written by Sophie Calle, a fascinating woman whose solipsitic artistic exploits were the inspiration for a character in Paul Auster's Leviathan. Imagine that - Paul Auster. If I had wanted to read Sophie Calle's book - and I do, actually - I would rather have used the money to buy myself a copy and read it silently in my own head. I have been reading books in that way since I was three years old and I am always very satisfied with the results.
Anyway... the theatre. I tried seeing anything with Simon Russell Beale in it while avoiding Felicity Kendall. But then they were in something together. I tried avoiding musicals but then I saw Hairspray and it was wonderful.
I haven't exactly got a list of my favourite shows ever but off the top of my head, some of the things I liked best that I have seen in recent years were:
- Aurelia's Oratorio - not a play, more like mime, creating images that were elusive and beautiful; the only thing I have ever seen that I wanted to go and see again the next day.
- Vanishing Point's Subway - silly story but wonderful performances, funny lines, and a band of seven Kosovan musicians fully integrated into the show
- A thing on the South Bank about fifteen years ago that took place in total darkness - in an underground car park, if I remember rightly, which maybe I don't. It was supposed to give you an insight into being blind. You had to try to cross a road and buy a drink at a bar, guided by a blind person. Nowadays you might call it immersive theatre although it wasn't theatre, but some kind of public information initiative. It affected me profoundly.
- Johnny Vegas at some crappy club in London years and years ago bringing his show to a rousing and rather moving finale in which we all joined hands. And then he just kept on going - on and on and on - as people left to catch their last trains home, until the crowded club was less than half full. Not theatre exactly (well, not a play, anyway) but a heart-breaking performance.
- Hoi Polloi's Story of a Rabbit in Edinburgh. I sobbed all the way through it.
- Tim Crouch's An Oak Tree - something 'real' seemed to be happening on stage, as if I was getting a privileged glimpse into a rehearsal room.
- Speed the Plow - Spacey and Goldblum live on stage for my entertainment. Extraordinary.
- Kneehigh's Tristan & Yseult - wonderful.
Now, you might not have liked any of these things. But it hardly matters as you can make up your own mind about what you go to see*. The point is that I loved them for a variety of mostly 'non-theatrical' reasons, unrelated to the question of whether they were actually any good. And looking at the list, it's impossible to distill any set of rules about what I should see next.
I think what I'm going to do is decide what I'd like to see, then put the money in a jar, imagine what the show might be like - and do something else instead.
First up is Press at The Gate. It looks fantastic (I'm thinking maybe a little bit Aurelia's Oratorio, a little bit Metamorphosis at The Lyric) and comes highly recommended by Lyn Gardner. It's only a 50 minute show but if I don't go, that's three hours (factoring in travelling time and collecting the ticket from the box office etc) I could spend writing or learning Arabic or having dinner with friends. Three hours of living. Plus £16 in the jar. Three or four more contributions like that and I could buy a ticket to Paris on the Eurostar.
Wonderful. I'll let you know how it goes.
* Although I would like to point out that Story of a Rabbit is on at The Barbican in June and Speed the Plow continues at The Old Vic until 26 April.