Watching ourselves

The bright lights of Broadway and the hallowed boards of the West End beckon actors from all over the world. The past years have seen a resurgence in the number and variety of plays performed by all-star casts with widespread popular appeal. Musicals have enjoyed a particular rediscovery. In these increasingly uncertain financial times however, what will become of these many shows? Will they be jettisoned as now-unaffordable, frivolous pleasures? Or does theatre actually have a wider role which will enable them to maintain and perhaps even strengthen their positions as a premier form of entertainment?
Just as sales of cinema tickets rose during the Great Depression, it seems logical that theatre will weather the economic storm. Although the price difference between cinema and theatre tickets is large, it is decreasing. With theatres such as the Old Vic and the National Theatre continuing to offer hugely-reduced tickets to Under-25s, and with a variety of appealing offers from many other theatres, what better way to treat oneself? Theatre provides enjoyment in a way that few other media can. The massive success of a variety of musicals of all kinds over the past few years is simply one indication of theatre’s popular appeal to a variety of demographics. A night at the theatre can be one of adrenalin rushes and laughter-there can be few people who have seen ‘Hairspray’ and not laughed at Michael Ball’s turn as Edna Turnblad, or who did not laugh in recognition at some point during ‘The History Boys.’ As the French actress Marie Trintignant said, “Theatre fulfils.” It awakens our emotions and takes us on whirlwind journeys. Its stories pull us in because they are unfolding before our eyes. That is theatre’s purpose-plays are written to be performed.
This last point hints at a deeper level to the role of theatre. Theatre is meant to be performed, and we, the audience, are meant to be part of it. Theatre can make us happy, but also sad, angry, hopeful. It speaks to us and has always done so. Shakespeare loaded his plays with visual imagery so that his illiterate audiences would still be able to appreciate his beautiful language, and people flocked to see his plays. Theatre offers an opportunity for escape into another world, be it far removed from or a mirror image of our own.
Most plays are, in some way and sometimes unwittingly, a form of social commentary. The hugely successful revival of Aaron Sorkin’s ‘A Few Good Men’ in 2006 found new relevancy in a post-9/11 world. Whilst the cuckolding theme of ‘The Country Wife’ is perhaps less relevant today than in Wycherley’s time, it still makes us question and explore relationships. Last month, ‘Complicit’ opened at the Old Vic, attacking the debate concerning journalistic ethics, a debate which resonates in a world still coming to terms with the aftermath of the Valerie Plame scandal.
In the words of the great humanist Erasmus, life is “a sort of comedy, in which the various actors, disguised by various costumes and masks, walk on and play each one his part, until the manager waves them off the stage.” Theatre provides us with a mirror to our own lives and the lives of those around us. It shows us the lives we would like to lead and the lives we would hate. It pulls us in and involves us in the action. The audience feels emotionally connected to those on stage. Theatre has a universal appeal and speaks to us all on different levels. Through a variety of ways it continues to pull in new fans. Theatre has, and hopefully will continue to have, a wide role within our society, a fact which we should all celebrate.