The silver stage

By Michael Billington (THE GUARDIAN, 08/10/08):

I spend a good deal of time at the video-rental store these days: part of the prep any theatre critic has to do to keep pace with the medium’s increasing reliance on movies. But, even as a former cinephile and film critic, I share the anxiety of many dramatists that theatre’s current craven dependence on well-known movie titles poses a real threat to new plays.

Film and theatre, of course, have always fed off each other. Hollywood has long looked to the stage for creative talent: it was that process which, in the 1930s, led to the break-up of a radical ensemble such as the Group Theatre when John Garfield, Clifford Odets and many others were lured by the prospect of Californian gold. Conversely, our own thriving theatre industry has always depended heavily on the propinquity of the film studios: actors have historically commuted between Shepperton and Shaftesbury Avenue, and I can hardly think of a successful dramatist who doesn’t devote much of his or her time to writing film scripts.

Only an idiotic purist would argue that film and theatre exist in separate boxes. One could also claim that theatre has recently shown a witty ability to reinterpret movie classics. Emma Rice’s Kneehigh Theatre, in particular, has shown a penchant for adapting old films. Its version of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death may have flatly subverted the original, but its more recent Brief Encounter not only played in an old cinema but ingeniously conflated David Lean’s iconic 1945 film with the Noel Coward stage play on which it was based: the result was a genuine multimedia experiment. And, even though I found the stage version of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps rather too knowingly jokey, I am clearly in a minority of one, given the production’s endless popularity in London and New York.

My real concern is with the increasing number of stage plays that trade on our movie memories: shows like the recent Rain Man, Samuel Adamson’s Old Vic version of Almodovar’s All About My Mother and Terry Johnson’s West End rewrite of The Graduate. One could even add to the list Girl With a Pearl Earring and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – which, although deriving from novels by Tracy Chevalier and Ken Kesey, depend for much of their box-office appeal on the subsequent films. And the process seems never-ending. What is the first big musical out of the blocks next year but an adaptation of the 1994 cult movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert?

If I feel a rising resentment it is for several reasons: it seems a lazy, unimaginative way of getting people into theatres; it supplants freshly conceived work by dramatists and music-makers; and it ignores the crucial aesthetic differences between film and theatre. Film depends for its impact on a montage of images, on its ability to place characters in a shifting landscape and on what I’d term an imaginative literalism. Theatre works through metaphor and suggestion. Although more physically restricted than cinema, it can turn an empty space into the world and a character into a poetic symbol. On screen, Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman is simply a struggling salesman. On stage, he becomes an archetypal embodiment of the debased American dream.

Obviously theatre can’t ignore film, and I welcome the use of video projections in theatrical design, as in the National’s production of Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, or the deployment of newsreel footage in Rupert Goold’s Macbeth. What infuriates me is the growing reliance of commercial producers on film back-catalogue when they should be scouring the land for new plays. Technically, the theatre of the future will inevitably be penetrated by cinema. But if it simply surrenders to the comforting lure of brand-name film titles, it will lose its very reason for existence.