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June 20, 2005

See this play if you have an unsatisfied desire for revenge: Theatre of Blood - Lee Simpson & Phelim McDermott

Posted by David Wootton

Lee Simpson and Phelim McDermott's Theatre of Blood
National Theatre, London
Lyttelton Theatre
in repertory 19th May - 27th August 2005

See this play if you have an unsatisfied desire for revenge, suggests David Wootton, the University of York's Anniversary Professor of History. But the play also raises the question, what is the subsidised theatre for?

What a strange play this is! A company called Improbable are apparently responsible for it, and the name is well-chosen. The inspiration is the Hammer Horror flick of the same title, and the story line is simple: the year is 1973, and a Shakespearean actor, Edward Lionheart by name, who has been denied a critics' award, returns from the dead. He invites seven critics to a derelict theatre, and there, with the assistance of his daughter and half a dozen tramps, he sets about murdering them in gruesome ways, in the process re-enacting fragments from Shakespeare plays. The wonderful Jim Broadbent plays Lionheart, a great actor pretending to be a bad one Olivier one is bound to think. Diana Rigg's daughter Rachael Stirling plays (rather convincingly) her mother. For all I know the critics are all identifiable too.

At one level the play is an exercise in theatricality, a display of all the devices of the theatre, and the ways in which they can be used to whip up an audience's emotions. The high point here is the version of the Merchant of Venice in which a critic has a pound of flesh removed, with his chest being cracked open and ribs displayed as in a particularly gruesome episode of ER. From beginning to end there is a great deal of blood. As an exercise in theatrical technique it is a complement to The Woman In Black. That long-running two hander depends on the skill of the actors to create a cast of characters, an invisible dog, a railway journey, and so forth. It too depends on the conceit that a good actor must play someone who doesn't know how to act. I have seen it three times with three casts (Alison takes her students to it, and I tag along) and it is always good and always frightening, but only the first cast were able to make the dog (Spider Alison tells me he is a King Charles spaniel, where I thought he was a Manchester terrier) come so perfectly alive that you believed you could see him there on the stage. But where in the Woman in Black almost everything that happens is shown to us through the words and gestures of the actors, here there are plenty of props and lots of ketchup.

At another level, Theatre of Blood is a play about the way in which Shakespeare inhabits our imaginations. In particular it is an Elizabethan revenge tragedy. The revenge tragedy seems a form that it would be impossible to bring into the modern age, but, with suitable borrowings from horror movies, it turns out to be quite straightforward. Revenge is a pleasure that we are no longer supposed to savour, but surely it is a universal human aspiration? If you have unsatisfied desires for revenge I strongly recommend this play as likely to offer a great deal of vicarious satisfaction. Actors and playwrights obviously nourish considerable hatred for critics, and the play seems particularly designed to give them pleasure.

A third feature of the play is that it is a pantomime melodrama at one point placards are actually held up telling the audience what to do. Like any well-crafted exercise in grand guignol, its structure is episodic and arbitrary. But even in a pantomime we are supposed to care what happens to the protagonists. The really difficult trick that the genre imposes is that of ensuring that everything and here particularly Broadbent acting Lionheart acting Shakespeare is excessive and over the top, while at the same time leaving space for the audience to have some genuine sense of hope and fear, of pathos and tragedy. The production thus constantly tips back and forth between excess and passion, and this is brilliantly achieved.

All of this would make a very entertaining evening out. But in the second half the play also develops a serious (and unexpected) theme. The year is 1973, and the National Theatre is about to open. Critics are being co-opted to join the new arts bureaucracy that is being staffed by middle class graduates from Oxford and Cambridge. The great era of state subsidy is about to begin. Lionheart is an old-fashioned actor manager, incapable (here he is clearly the antithesis of Olivier, perhaps rather Beerbohm Tree) of making the transition to the new era. The play announces itself to be, partly tongue in cheek, a lament for a lost era of the theatrical free market and a critique of the new era of government interference. At one point the house lights are brought up so that we can see the new theatre going up on the South Bank in all its neo-brutalist horror. The final curtain is an industrial safety curtain that seems to be made of the wooden planks used to cast the National Theatre's concrete walls. It's hard to know whether one is supposed to take this free-market propaganda seriously, but it is remarkable to see an attack (however ironic) on the National Theatre and all it stands for performed within the building and using the building as a prop. I have no love for the National Theatre's two main stages, and it is rather clever to turn one of the great handicaps of the theatre into a resource in this way.

This is a wonderfully entertaining show. But of course it leaves us with the question it asks so directly: Why should the government subsidise the pleasures of the theatre? And how does government subsidy transform the nature of the theatre that is performed? The play doesn't actually offer an answer to the question it asks, unless to suggest that subsidised theatre becomes theatre about theatre, that the whole enterprise becomes hopelessly self-conscious and self-reflexive. At the same time, though, it is obviously impossible to go back to the world it mocks, the world in which Shakespeare's plays were taken to be timeless representations of eternal truths. It leaves us rather hopelessly lost between the two.

I don't want to overstate the political and intellectual profundity of this jolly romp but if it reminds us of tragedy as it presents comedy, so it hints at what a serious theatre might be like while at the same time announcing the impossibility of any such thing. Go and see it, just to watch Jim Broadbent at his best. Apparently the theatre bookshop sells a Broadbent tee-shirt, and for once this seems justified, though there is the problem of course about where one might appropriately wear such a garment. He is enormously talented, though he does not reach here the heights of genius he attained in the Cottesloe Theatre, in the National's production of Martin McDonagh's The Pillow Man. If there is an answer to the question "What is subsidised theatre for?" that astonishing production was it. This however, as it itself proclaims, certainly isn't an adequate answer to that difficult question.

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York.

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