Theaters across London and the provinces are in desperate straits. Many are half-empty night after night, and some aren’t even bothering to open the upper circles as so few tickets are selling.
What on earth is going on? Covid hasn’t gone entirely, but it is much diminished. Masks need no longer be worn. And those in the business were confidently expecting a huge post-pandemic resurgence. But it just hasn’t happened.
‘The brutal truth,’ one theater critic lamented last week, ‘is that the many shows that before lockdown enjoyed full houses are playing to empty seats.’
One of the reasons she suggested was a lack of Asian tourists because of Covid. More persuasive is the cost. The article was illustrated with a still from a recent production, showing two handsome young actors in a romantic clinch, with the solemn caption: ‘Taron Egerton and Jonathan Bailey in’ Cock ‘.’
When Andrew Lloyd Webber announces that his new Cinderella will be closing early on June 12, you know things are serious
Taron Egerton and Jonathan Bailey in ‘Cock’, a production where the best seats have been selling for more than £ 200 per person
Top seats for the immortal ‘Cock’ – which ran for just 90 minutes – were £ 217. Meanwhile, there are seats going empty at the new production of My Fair Lady at the London Coliseum, and even at the Frozen musical. And when Andrew Lloyd Webber announces that his new Cinderella will be closing early on June 12, you know things are serious.
But not every show is ludicrously expensive and really there’s a glaringly obvious reason why so many are failing, why so many seats are empty, why so many of us are staying away.
It’s because so much of modern theater is no good. The malaise afflicting it now has nothing to do with Covid, and everything to do with the destructive culture wars that are devouring so much of our familiar artistic landscape.
The demise of our theater is exactly paralleled by the way the new Woke Hollywood has ‘re-imagined’ Star Wars, Disney stories and Marvel characters, only to produce flop after flop.
And ‘Go Woke, Go Broke’ is just as true on Shaftesbury Avenue as it is on Sunset Boulevard. You might not mind a bit of fashionable political posturing on the fringes, in student theater, or at the achingly trendy Royal Court Theater in Sloane Square, one of the richest parts of London where they like to play at being terribly Left-wing.
But even the mainstream, the big jolly musicals, are now disfigured and ruined by having hectoring woke views and values shovelled into them willy-nilly. Can we ever have just a regular, non-preachy version of a play or a musical? Just for entertainment? ‘No you can’t,’ seems to be the scolding reply.
Worse still, this censorious new ideology – really no more than a mass of shrill opinions – seems incapable of creating its own, fresh works. Its devotees can only parasitise and cannibalise from the older repertoire, turning much-loved classics into mere vehicles for expounding their own views.
Depressing in its negativity, breath-taking in its bubble-dwelling egotism, the modern theater is thus doomed to produce plays which are about as exciting as a two-hour long sermon.
Because that’s often pretty much what they are.
Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella is a shining example. Prince Charming is gay. Eventually he runs off with a handsome Duke, and Cinderella ends up with another fellow called Sebastian.
It hardly needs pointing out that British audiences have no problem whatsoever with gay storylines – since the 1890s we’ve been chortling at the sly and extremely camp humor of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest. The problem is that Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella is woefully misjudged.
Pride and Prejudice has a rather modern take, complete with recycling bins and plenty of feminism
The cast receive flowers at the Opening Night performance of ‘My Fair Lady’ at the London Coliseum on May 18, 2022
It ruins the ancient and archetypal folk tale of the poor but golden-hearted girl who is eventually rescued by a handsome prince, and turns it into a lesson on. . . something or other. But it shouldn’t be a lesson in anything. It should just be fun.
There was more challenging and hectoring going on in a new version of Jane Austen, called Pride And Prejudice (Sort Of). It is all-female – no Mr Darcys allowed; it’s ‘unique and audacious,’ in its own rather rather self-approving description; and it includes such ground-breaking moments as Elizabeth Bennet rejecting Mr Collins’s marriage proposal by telling him to ‘F *** Off’. So original, darling! And guess what? It, too, closed early and is off on tour.
In Mel Brooks’s hilariously bad- taste satire, The Producers, from 1967, two corrupt theater impresarios hatch an elaborate plan to make money from deliberately putting on a musical that is so terrible it’s bound to fail. The musical is titled, Springtime For Hitler: A Gay Romp With Adolf And Eva At Berchtesgaden.
To look at today’s theater, you would sometimes think its major creatives actually take inspiration from the Mel Brooks movie.
What about the recent play, Sylvia, at the Old Vic? A three-hour long feminist hip-hop musical about the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, with an almost entirely black cast playing the historically white characters – including Winston Churchill.
Of course, the trend for race blind-casting can be riotously successful. Take the musical Hamilton, for example, with young black, Asian, Latino and mixed-race actors playing America’s white founding fathers, or Netflix’s Bridgerton series.
My concern is that it has quickly become drearily predictable in theater, and when you start gratuitously altering real-life characters – for the sake of it – audiences don’t buy it.
There was a new Oklahoma! at the Young Vic just down the road from Sylvia, ‘re-orchestrated and re-imagined for the 21st century’, we were ominously told.
Audiences were promised – sorry, ‘trigger warned’ about – ‘large amounts of blood, and violence, sudden blackouts, flashing video images, disturbing themes including mention of suicide and an implied act of sexual assault’. Sounds a laugh a minute, doesn’t it?
Now why would you want to travel into London and pay £ 65 a ticket to see this delightful confection, rather than stay at home and watch the Oscar-winning 1955 movie on DVD?
Again, I can’t imagine.
Occasionally, a leading creative dares to step out of line, show independence of thought – and is ruthlessly de-platformed.
Take Terry Gilliam, late of Monty Python, always more anarchic than Lefty. In fact the BBC’s own Controller of Comedy (is it me, or is that phrase slightly… Stalinist?) Said that he wouldn’t commission something like Monty Python today, featuring ‘Six Oxbridge white blokes.’ Whether it was funny or not didn’t seem to be the issue.
Terry Gilliam ran into trouble when he said in an interview that he was ‘tired of white men being blamed for everything wrong with the world’. He even attempted a joke: ‘When I announce that I’m a black lesbian in transition, people take offence at that. Why? ‘
Wokes don’t do jokes, and you’re not allowed to be tired of white men being blamed for everything. The next thing we know, Gilliam’s new musical production at the Old Vic has been cancelled, due to ‘staff unease’, and he’s had to move it to Bath for the opening.
It all leaves the culture vultures among us – who really pine for a good book, a good film or play – feeling permanently half-starved.
Or you go along to a new production with that familiar feeling of anticipatory dread: what fresh indignity will be heaped upon some Shakespeare masterpiece or favorite musical this time?
Nevertheless, amid this dismal scene of artistic incompetence and creative exhaustion, there is one bright spark: and it is that these awful theater productions are failing. In the end, the theater is a business like any other, and if it doesn’t turn a profit, it dies.
The theater simply has to change: because the great British public are clearly not prepared to pay any more for the privilege of being preached at.
For all these comically dreadful examples of bad theater, then maybe, just maybe, we are witnessing something like the beginnings of a cultural revival.