Film Stars Head for London Stages

Special Features   Film Stars Head for London Stages
LONDON TICKET -- September 1998

LONDON TICKET -- September 1998


: As we move towards autumn and the start of a new theatre season, a host of leading film stars have announced their intention of taking to the London stage in the wake of Ralph Fiennes, whose Almeida Theatre Hamlet (1995) and Ivanov (1997) undoubtedly reawakened the Hollywood crossover habit.

Juliet Binoche (Naked), Liam Neeson as Oscar Wilde and Kevin Spacey in The Iceman Cometh have already been and gone, while Stacy Keach is already leading the fourth London cast of Art. And that's just for starters.

Within the next few months we are due to get Madonna in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (possibly), Jessica Lange in Long Day's Journey Into Night, Emma Thompson in As You Like It, Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room (David Hare's new adaptation of the classic Schnitzler La Ronde) and Ewan McGregor of Trainspotting in a rare revival of Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs. So what makes a million-dollar-movie star settle for £250 a week in a small studio theatre often some way north of central London?

Well, we could be cynical and say it is often the start of something that then leads them in award-winning triumph to the West End and Broadway. Or that it restores stage credit to actors feeling that somehow another blockbuster movie might not satisfy their inner souls. Or that many (more often British than American) stars started their careers on small studio stages, and wish now either to get back to their roots or pay something back by working for a fraction of their market value elsewhere.

Whatever the actual reason, it is one of those all-win, no-lose situations; if the show triumphs, everyone benefits either artistically or commercially or both. If it doesn't, no film star has yet (so far as I know) lost their next million-dollar movie because a play they did for six weeks in a small studio theatre in North London happened to be a flop. And lest there be any doubt, studio theatres like the Almeida now have considerably more enthusiastic supporters onstage, backstage and in their audiences than the major old subsidized companies, as David Hare recently noted: "An aimless tangle of bureaucratic structures scandalously ensures that the Royal Shakespeare Company is allowed to do dismal work with lavish, unmerited subsidy while brilliant young theatres like the Bush, the Almeida, the Royal Court and the Edinburgh Traverse offer 50 times the RSC's vitality on a fraction of its resources." An increasingly embattled RSC has retreated to Stratford to regroup its forces and try to attract starrier casts by promising them shorter contracts.

WHAT ELSE THE BUTLER SAW: >Joe Orton, the comic dramatist famously bludgeoned to death by his gay lover Kenneth Halliwell in an Islington apartment just 30 summers ago, left more behind him than a few scandalously funny black comedies. Three manuscripts, a comic novel entitled Between Us Girls and two surreal farces, Fred & Madge and The Visitors, have been located by NYU professor Francesca Coppa, who came to Britain in search of 'lost Orton' and hit pay dirt when she found two old cardboard boxes moldering amongst his papers.

The late lamented Joe would have enjoyed a gruesome footnote; as he left all his property to Halliwell, you might logically suppose these papers now to belong to the estate of his lover and murderer. Some years ago, however, a coroner ruled that Orton had, in fact, lingered on in a coma for a few hours after his lover killed himself, thereby rendering the Halliwell legacy invalid and allowing Orton's family to reclaim the legacy of his papers, only now beginning to assert their true value.

DEAFENING REPORT: You will have read a great deal over the last few months about what, if anything, really ails the British theatre and what could maybe be done about it, from the sale of the Old Vic to the meltdown that all our opera and ballet homes now seem to be facing.

The problem with all these recipes for cures, lamentations and/or celebrations is that they have very often been based on little more than the personal opinions of the writers; but now, at long last, we have something more concrete on which to base all of our often conflicting theories.

The Wyndham Report, commissioned by the Society of West End Theatres and newly published this summer, contains an utterly fascinating collection of facts and figures and should become a devastating response to anyone who still believes that the survival of the West End is really only of any interest to American tourists and the few locals who can still afford to go. Among its findings are that last year alone, the London theatre brought just over £1 billion into the general British economy by way of restaurants, hotels, transport and taxis.

Then again, West End theatregoers spent more than £430 million on restaurants, hotels, transport and merchandise. They paid more than £2 million in tax on tickets; just over 40,000 jobs are created by London theatres, and last year all the London theatre contributed a surplus worth £225 million to the general U.K. economy.

Now, let's think for a moment what all those statistics really mean. They mean that, so far as being an elitist specialty of no real interest or worth to the nation as a whole, theatre in London is a more successful industry than almost any other in Britain. Any government, even this one so apparently obsessed by the cinema and pop music at the expense of the theatre itself, has now to face the fact that unless it gets behind the West End with all the right subsidies and other help, it may well be closing down one of the few industries in this country that still works better than any other anywhere in the world.

And, lest you think this is all getting rather too parochial and political, one little footnote to this report: The big British musicals of the last decade or two, those like Phantom and Les Miz and Cats and Miss Saigon, now have worldwide box-office takings far in excess of such blockbuster movies as Titanic or Jurassic Park.

Interesting or what?

-- By Sheridan Morley

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