Theatre Critic and Journalist

Column: Theatre’s Revolution Should Be Televised

Column: Theatre’s Revolution Should Be Televised

Published in The Stage, 16.10.2014

It’s a Sunday night in 2005. I’ve shot-gunned the television in my pokey student flat – no questions asked. DV8 are on Channel 4. Prime-time, too: a 10pm slot; right after Big Brother.

The Cost of Living started life onstage five years earlier, a celebration of bodily diversity that featured double amputee David Toole alongside mature and overweight dancers. On television it changed into something else: a story of male friendship and misfits; three blokes in Brighton, dancing out their lust, aggression and loneliness.

In it, Toole careers through the seaside town on a micro-scooter. A pilled-up Eddie Kay thumps his head like a piston. Rowan Thorpe explodes into a joyful solo in an unguarded moment alone, dancing carefree in front of sky-blue garage doors as Cher’s Believe starts to soar. That sequence immediately becomes my favourite three minutes of television ever. My housemates, so sceptical to start, fall silent. DV8 blast Big Brother out of the water.

DV8 used to translate every stage show to the sceen. Preparing to interview AD Lloyd Newson recently I watched their early work – all staged in the early 90s, long before my time, but all preserved as television.

Not on television, but as television. These aren’t just stage productions captured on camera, but films in their own right. Each stands without loss, different to the original, sure, but keeping its essence intact. Enter Achilles plays out in a real-life East End boozer. Its alpha-males dance with pint glasses and duet with inflatable dolls. It makes for truly theatrical television, not television made out of theatre.

Today, if theatre makes the small screen at all – and it rarely does – it’s usually because someone’s stuck a camera or two at stage. It’s cheap and NT Live and Digital Theatre get away with it, either retaining a sense of event or as documentation. As television that just looks a bit shoddy. (See series one of Sky Arts Playhouse Presents for proof, and pray BBC Arts At… doesn’t follow suit.)

What happened to the days when A Number or Blue/Orange became television movies in their own right?

Part of the problem is that television hasn’t’ tried to handle the theatrical vocabularies and new forms of the last decade. How do you put Punchdrunk on television? (Rumour has it Felix Barrett is asking exactly that.) What about War Horse or Three Kingdoms or A Disappearing Number? Productions steeped in stagecraft and metaphor? TV deals in literalism as its default. The assumption is that it can cope with drama, but not theatre – unless it shows theatre as theatre. DV8’s films beg to differ. They are rich and rewarding, both theatrical and televisual.

Fingers crossed, then, that London Road marks a change. Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork’s verbatim musical is inherently theatrical and one suspects Rufus Norris will direct it to retain as much theatricality as possible. In doing so, the new NT boss might just usher in another age of truly theatrical television. Here’s hoping for May 2005 all over again.

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