The upcoming season at the National Theatre has a certain amount of “the mixture as before” in it. But it’s a pretty tasty mixture, and blended together right nice. From a rich and varied programme, a few particularly stand out. First off, Alan Bennett has written another play for them. People seems to be about an attic sale in a decaying stately home, which is enough to get any Bennett fan salivating. One of the most immediately attractive things about his last for the National, The Habit of Art, was the wild proliferation of stuff. He must be a joy to design for – last time the lodgings of W.H. Auden in his old Oxford college, and this time a mouldering pile somewhere in the heart of the British countryside. The poster has a sofa, empty portrait frames and open drawers – you can see the point being made about the absence of people, but there’s also a slight hint of Holbein’s The Ambassadors, that carefully composed jumble whose precise meaning scholars are still arguing over. And a mouldering country house promises plenty of Bennett exploring Britishness (whatever that is) in run-down institutions, via the line which runs through The History Boys all the way back to Forty Years On. The dialogue quoted in the advert has his customary bite:
– How’re you doing?
– Not sure
– Well, why don’t you get on the mobile to your dick and find out?
Speaking of Forty Years On, Bennett is also collaborating with George Fenton (who wrote the music for that early and excoriating vision of a tatty English school) on a short piece called Hymn: a memoir of music in childhood. A quick thirty minutes of music and musing, it’ll probably be worth a look, and is paired as a double bill with Cocktail Sticks “an oratorio without music that revisits some of the themes and conversations of Alan Bennett’s memoir”. Personally I tend to edge away from Bennett in autobiographical mood, on the stage at least – it doesn’t leave him enough room to say much more than how things were in one particular case. He says that accurately and even hauntingly, but it’s too cosy and slips too easily into Alan the National Treasure, unthreatening and nicely wistful. This piece is apparently only based on the memoir, and has fictional characters, but I’ll take even odds that it won’t have the grim reversals which made Talking Heads more than a set of character studies of good honest folk oop North.
The Effect is another appetising prospect. It’s a Lucy Prebble play described as “a clinical romance” which “explores questions of sanity, neurology and the limits of medicine”, and is directed by Rupert Goold, who staged Earthquakes in London at the National earlier in the year. I didn’t manage to see ENRON by Prebble, but heard from a friend that it managed a very difficult feat, staging details of the financial crisis without making it preachy, explainy or A Personal Human Drama. (It involved lots of shiny boxes and a light sabre fight with fluorescent lights, from the excited account I received.) If anyone can get neurology and medicine up on a stage alongside a love story, giving both equal weight, it may well be Lucy Prebble.
Arthur Wing Pinero is another British talent getting a lot of attention at the moment, though sadly he is somewhat too dead to enjoy it. He lived from the 1850s to the 1930s, and seems to be having a bit of a revival at the moment. His farce Dandy Dick is currently on tour, his nostalgic piece about the Victorian theatre Trelawny of the Wells is opening at the Donmar next season, and his “problem play” about the treatment of women The Second Mrs. Tanqueray is about to open at The Rose in Kingston. The National are adding to the wave with a version of another farce, The Magistrate. The Rose’s publicity material calls Pinero “more probing than Oscar Wilde and more accessible than Ibsen”, which frankly makes everyone involved in the comparison come off looking slightly shoddy. He is striking, though, as a figure of who links the self-consciously radical upstarts of the 1890s New Theatre (George Bernard Shaw and his cronies) with the unashamedly entertaining mid-century comedians like Dion Boucicault (whose London Assurance was a success at the National and on tour last year.) Trelawny of the Wells, whose name refers to the old-fashioned playhouse Sadler’s Wells, is partly a myth of origin for the modern theatre, in which a young actress (in love with a man of good family) finds herself trapped between being too lively for “society” but too refined for the Wells and its company. The invention of more realistic drama and her marriage to said young man cement the dawning of a new era in the British theatre, whilst looking back fondly at the old days of the Wells.
This is more than an interesting fact of theatre history because the National Theatre is itself the product of this period. It wasn’t actually founded until 1963, but all through the late nineteenth century the progressive strand of British theatre involved calls for a National Theatre to be founded, to nurture non-commercial work which could do more for the country than simply entertain it with comic stereotypes, dancing girls and sensational murders. Those in favour of a National Theatre were often leftists, sometimes feminists, often attracted by gritty realistic drama about social problems, and might well also be interested in staging Shakespeare in an “authentic” manner. High-minded, arty types with a burning belief that Art had a Mission. In other words, the National Theatre was a project espoused by those who thought Boucicault’s work was ruining British culture, and who would probably have regarded Pinero’s as little better. Though his most famous play, The Second Mrs. Tanqueray grazes social critique, it’s basically an exemplary tale about the ghastly fate which awaits a “fallen woman”. Certainly the plot of The Magistrate – with its young man-about-town whom everyone thinks is fourteen years old, a stepfather out on a secret binge and police chasing in and out of a hotel – is unlikely to set an audience pondering social problems.
Historical ironies aside, the appearance of the likes of Pinero and Boucicault at the National is rather cheering. It suggests that we’re rediscovering a part of theatrical history, from the mid and late nineteenth century, which has too often been banished, or only offered as the murky background against which Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw reacted. The Victorians have much more to offer us than their high-minded avant-garde and if the National itself can embrace the exuberant and occasionally inane products of the Victorian commercial theatre, we’re likely to get a rounder and livelier vision of our theatrical past.