Tuesday, 11 April 2017

A Great Escape

As part of my preparation for next years Masters Degree I mentioned that I have been reading 'State Of The Nation' by Michael Billington. I am particularly grateful to this book for the empty pages at the end, which have allowed me to scribble notes that wouldn't quite fit in the margins.

 

I have also been attending relevant plays and performances, to investigate how theatre responds to crisis: a couple of weeks ago I saw An American In Paris at the Dominion Theatre, and while this may not seem to be a particularly political piece of theatre, I would actually argue that it is a valid response.

Glance around London's West End right now: alongside perennials such as The Lion King, modern hits like Book Of Mormon and Matilda, there has been an influx of classic, vintage musicals, including An American In Paris and 42nd Street.

Musical Theatre, and musical films, have had their biggest successes during times of crisis: people crave escapism and lavish musicals provide this. A critic recently came under fire for reviewing 42nd Street, and suggesting that it might have more impact had the writers explored the background against which the frothy piece of entertainment was set - namely, the Great Depression. And while, sometimes, contextualising is useful, at other times people don't want to be reminded of what awaits them at home; they want glamour; in both the sense of romance and sparkle, and the more traditional sense of a magic spell or enchantment.

Image Source: Getty Images

Theatre responds like this regularly. It is noticeable time and time again: during the 1980's there was a surge of commercial musical theatre, led by Andrew Lloyd Webber with productions of CatsJesus Christ Superstar and so on. He is back on form now, during another crisis, with the new musical School Of Rock and a re-staging of JCS both winning Olivier Awards in 2017.

There is a time and a place for political, state-of-the-nation theatre, and, while "enjoy" might not quite be the correct word, I do "enjoy" hard-hitting, relevant, thought-provoking productions. But, occasionally, I just want to sit in a dimmed auditorium and watch impossibly talented dancers hoof around the boards, forgetting my troubles, and the troubles of the world outside the theatre.

Image Source: anamericaninparisthemusical.co.uk

Escapism is a perfectly valid response to a crisis. It is the theatrical equivalent of a pyjama-day: soft, fluffy and comfortable. It is uplifting, life-affirming and regenerating, and we are always sure of a happy ending. And in an uncertain world, it is essential to have that certainty somewhere. Theatre has a duty to provide that as much as anything else.


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