Starting Point

Another classic story, told again. An out-of-copyright, back-of-your consciousness, Hard-wired-into-your-soul story, with a twist, or not, being put on by theatre companies young and old, all over the place (unless they’ve had their funding cut).

I love that stories are recycled and re-shown to us over the years, their relevance going in and out of focus as media trends and fads shift in the background. Shakespeare is a flagship for this treatment: An all-female production of Julius Caesar, a South-African Othello, a shape-shifting Macbeth in a crypt, all of these ‘radical re-inventions’ line up over the years, contrasted with the odd authentic original practices production, such the original pronunciation version of Romeo & Juliet at the Globe a few years back. It seems another taboo is about to be broken via a Shakespeare play, with a forthcoming Much Ado at the Old Vic, which will feature leading actors Vanessa Redgrave (75) and James Earl Jones (81) taking on the roles Beatrice and Benedick.

The stories stand up. They can take it. Testing how robust a story is can be joyful, and is many the starting point of a BAZ exploration. We see that crossing boundaries of genres and media whilst using classic stories works. A musical rises out of a novel to become a film (Les Miserables), or a play emerges from a film based on a painting (Girl with a Pearl Earring). I even saw a ballet take the mick out of its own genre to make another ballet which was originally taken from a Russian folk tale…

Matthew Bourne and his company Adventures in Motion Pictures have had my captive attention since I saw their Swan Lake last century at Sadler’s Wells. I was about 15, and it is safe to say I went mental about it. I have loved Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes since school, and found the collaboration of set design, dance, music and storytelling a fascinating one. Seeing Bourne totally mess with ballet conventions to the tune of Tchaikovsky’s music was thrilling, especially with his recasting of the swan from delicate to dangerous.

But what about applying all these “re-dos” to something that isn’t a classic, or a work by Shakespeare or Homer, or an old folk tale? What if the inspiration for re-invention comes from recent times, from popular culture? Should it be regarded differently, as a work of little value or a timely gimmick? What makes a reinvention worthy?

I was lucky enough to see another Bourne production called Play Without Words, a retelling of a film adaptation by Harold Pinter called The Servant. At the time of watching the play/ballet, I had not seen the film, but I adored the brassy choreography and 1960s aesthetic (before the world had gone entirely loopy about “vintage”) and was fascinated that the starting point had been a film, and before a film, a novel. So not so much lost in translation, but found in transposition.

So can you make high-art out of pop-culture? The pop-art movement says “yes” in a big Lichtenstein speech bubble. But in the theatre, how would that work? I guess an example where ‘pop’ was put on a proscenium arch stage was in the early 1990s with Rambert’s Rooster– a ballet inspired by the music of the Rolling Stones… watch out pop-pickers… is this eclectic postmodernism?

Aside from these balletic examples, we also happen to be at jukebox-musical-saturation point. Audiences still flock to see a live show based on the music of their favourite bands, from Abba to The Beatles. And it would seem that television isn’t safe either, with stage versions of TV classics such as Yes Prime Minister and Acorn Antiques both making high profile appearances in the west end, along with a version of Rising Damp which tours the UK this summer.

Until last week I had never witnessed a TV-to-stage-transplant, and I admit I was a bit skeptical about it. Maybe it is because I have a deep down impression of theatre as being sacred, somewhere where you go to see some high art and dress up a bit. (I try to resist this by the way, with pretty much everything BAZ chooses to do – but that’s another blog for another time.) So why was I reticent about seeing TV transferred to stage? Maybe it feels like too recent a genre, not far enough in the dusty past, or lofty like a book, or epic like a film. Then I got the opportunity to see a piece of theatre by Kneehigh based on a 1960s sitcom called Steptoe and Son.

I had heard of Steptoe and Son, but that’s about it. It was before my time but still in my consciousness. I knew that Harry H Corbett, who played the son, in real life spoke in an RP accent and was charmingly nonchalant (from the excerpt of an interview I saw him give), but mainly I was aware of the series because it was written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. They had written the preferred sitcom of my childhood, Hancock’s Half Hour. My husband was forced to watch it as a youngster and is still repulsed by it because he found it depressing, but I was transfixed by East Cheam’s hapless resident, and his dysfunctional relationships with Miss Pugh, Sid, and Bill. The show had exceptional comic acting and brilliant writing. Galton and Simpson nailed it with Hancock’s Half Hour but when their collaboration with Tony Hancock ended, they proved that they weren’t a one-hit wonder. At the height of its powers Steptoe and Son had 28 million viewers on BBC1. To put that in perspective, the peak viewing figures for The X factor in 2010 only pulled in 19.7 million.

When it came to staging Steptoe and Son, Kneehigh’s production artfully avoided crass comparison with the original TV actors’ performances and relocated the characters from Shepherd’s Bush to the west country, so that phrases like “You dirty old man” could have their own space. The performances were alive and enticing – I felt invited in via the eye contact between the actors and us in the audience, and the dance sequences added a music-hall flavour, which in the environs of Frank Matcham’s ornate Victorian theatre in Hammersmith felt apt. The original cast of two men was expanded to include a woman, who embodied everything from Old Steptoe’s deceased wife, to a prospective date, to “1960s womanhood” to “The Future”.  I loved it. It was charming and hilarious and magical and profoundly sad, and much as I love television, I don’t think it can inspire goosebumps in the same way. Theatre can never be TV, and vice versa, right? If you hadn’t seen the sitcom it didn’t matter, here was a story being told. If you were a die-hard Steptoe and Son fan then maybe the love for the original was so indelibly printed that you couldn’t get over it – but enjoying a work in its own right is what its all about, isn’t it? Who cares where the story comes from, as long as you tell it with courage and skill?

The night I saw Steptoe and Son the actor playing old Steptoe made a curtain speech which included a plea for schools to put Galton and Simpson on the syllabus. The audience chuckled but I think it’s a great idea. To present recent social history via the tragedy and comedy of these talented and well-loved writers shouldn’t be sniffed at, just as we shouldn’t disregard the creation of a ballet inspired by a pop song.

So if we are in an age where artists are like magpies, looking at the past and picking out the shiny bits with the present as a backdrop, then what’s wrong with taking inspiration from absolutely anywhere? As an extreme example, can a recent story embedded in popular culture make it to the elevated heights of our most established theatrical institutions? I guess so…

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