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Lazy British Theatre For Gullible American Audiences

June 3, 2009

I've lost count of the number of sub-par touring productions I've seen of classic plays by British theatre companies in the US over which American audiences go ga-ga irrespective of their quality.

With the possible exception of Tim Supple's Indian A Midsummer Night's Dream and Cheek By Jowl's Twelfth Night, I can't think of any British production I've seen in recent years on US stages that have actually been worth the price of admission.

Yet the adulation with which shows like Peter Hall's Theatre Royal, Bath production of As You Like It and -- the prompt for writing this blog post -- Phyllida Lloyd's take on Schiller's Mary Stuart for the Donmar Warehouse (which I saw in New York last week) have been received stateside give me pause for thought. Are people simply won over by the accents? Do theatregoers see names like Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter on the marquee and autmatically think to themselves "there are famous British actresses in this production therefore it MUST be superb"? Why do new world audiences lose all sense of critical judgment when it comes to experiencing productions from the old world?

A few weeks before I went to New York, I asked as many people in the know as I could for theatre recommendations. The one show that came up in almost every exchange was Mary Stuart. Which is why I decided to go and see the show. Admittedly, a couple of people who had not yet experienced the production for themselves recommended it to me, most likely on the basis of McTeer's well-received turn on Broadway as Nora in A Doll's House a few years ago.

But far from representing the best of British theatre, Lloyd's lifeless production is packed with the worst of its cliches. Though Walter, as a terse Elizabeth I gave a slightly nuanced performance, McTeer, as Mary, Queen of Scots, hit one melodramatic note throughout. Peter Oswald's adaptation killed all the poetry in Schiller's original. The whole thing felt stagey, pompous and tired.

I understand that by the time UK productions reach the US, they have often been running for a couple of years or more. This could explain the lack of freshness. But what I can't get my head around is the thunderous applause and critical hurrahs that the production is receiving on Broadway. "It's hard not to be at least a little in love with -- and more than a little in awe of -- the very leading ladies in Phyllida Lloyd's crackling revival (first seen at the Donmar Warehouse in London) of this 1800 tragedy of double-dealing politics," wrote Ben Brantley in the New York Times.

When, oh when, is the US going to get over its automatic deference to British theatre?


  • I couldn't agree more. I was horrified by Roger Rees' one man show at ACT last year. Not only were the jokes bad and telegraphed across the bay, but his actual acting was jaw-dropingly awful. The audience were in hysterics. I absolutely agree that English accents seem to still have a magical effect on Americans.
    I saw an Ayckbourn play in Oxford many years ago and the acting was horrific, but I knew that JUST BECAUSE they were British if this had been taken to the states it probably would have won a Tony.

    By Anonymous celia, At June 22, 2009 at 11:00 AM  

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