The Rise and Rise of Tragicomedy
Sunday 3rd February 2008

There’s a moment towards the end of Uncle Vanya, Peter Hall’s production of Chekhov’s masterpiece at the newly restored Rose Theatre, when the title character announces that he’s “depressed”. This is hardly surprising, given that his detested brother-in-law, Professor Serebryakov, has just departed with Yelena, the love of his life. What is surprising is that this moment is greeted with laughter — or, at least, it was on press night. This is partly due to the delivery of Nicholas Le Provost, who gives such an entertaining performance in the central role that you can’t help feeling a frisson of pleasure whenever he opens his mouth, but it is also because the play itself manages to combine humour and pathos in equal measure.

Ever since Uncle Vanya was first performed in 1900, tragicomedy has generally been considered the highest of all the theatrical genres. As a member of the audience, there is something profoundly satisfying about not knowing whether to laugh or cry at any given moment — much more satisfying than if the play in question is either straightforwardly funny or straightforwardly sad. Deep down, laughter and tears seem to originate in the same place and a piece of work that penetrates to that inner core makes a stronger impression than one that merely makes us feel happy or sad.

The same is true of film and television. When it comes to cinema, the best comedies are those that constantly threaten to spill over into tragedy, such as The Apartment, Life Is Beautiful and Sideways — and the most engaging thrillers are those that are shot through with black humour, such as No Country For Old Men, this year’s likely winner of the Oscar for Best Picture. As a general rule, the more carefully a film straddles this line, the more grown up it feels.

In the case of television, tragicomedy has spawned a bastard son known as “dramedy”. Nearly all the most critically-acclaimed American series fall into this category, including Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty and Entourage, as does the best homegrown drama — Life on Mars, Cranford and virtually every literary adaptation by Andrew Davies.

From a dramatist’s point of view, tragicomedies are always very appealing because they’re not as hard to write as the layman might imagine. They involve combining two genres that appear to be poles apart, but, in fact, have a good deal in common.

As Ray Cooney, the author of 17 West End comedies, puts it: “Most tragedies have as their basic theme the struggle of the individual against forces which are overwhelming, and the individual’s efforts to combat these forces as the tide runs stronger against him. In addition, the individual is usually tortured because of his own character flaws and his inability to control these flaws under stress. Well, that seems to me to sum up most of my farces!”


Curb Your Enthusiasm
Monday 21st January 2008

Season six of Curb Your Enthusiasm debuts on More4 this evening at 10.35pm. Click here for a good piece about Curb in Saturday’s Guardian or here for my fawning Larry David tribute that appeared in the Independent on Sunday in 2006.


Should Theatre be Subsidised?
Monday 21st January 2008

Britain’s luvvies are currently up in arms about the Arts Council’s proposed funding cuts to various regional theatres. They are concerned that many of the venues that depend on Arts Council subsidies — such as the Bristol Old Vic, the Northcott Theatre in Exeter and the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond — will be forced to close if their annual grants are cut. (For a summary of the proposal and its likely impact on six performing arts centres, see this piece by Laura Barnett in last week’s Guardian.)

I’m skeptical about this. Surely, the theatres in question will only go out of business if they continue to put on plays that fail to capture the public’s imagination. It is only because they don’t sell enough tickets that they’re forced to depend on state handouts. If the artistic directors responsible for programming these venues were a little more in touch with the taste of ordinary theatregoers, their survival wouldn’t be in jeopardy.

The standard reply to this argument is that adopting such a safe, commercial approach would inevitably lead to the end of the risk-taking that is a necessary condition of creative vitality. In this light, subsidized theatres are the laboratories in which young writers and innovative directors are free to experiment. The vast majority of these productions will fail to put bums on seats, but some will be such artistic successes that they will go on to play to packed houses in the West End. A case in point is Jerry Springer: The Opera, which began life at the heavily-subsidized Battersea Arts Centre. (For a version of this argument, see this piece by Richard Morrison in Saturday’s Times.)

I’m not convinced. Take the Menier Chocolate Factory. This 200-seat venue, which opened in 2004, is among the two or three most successful fringe theatres in the UK and yet it has never received a penny of public funding. The production of Dealer’s Choice that is currently playing at Trafalgar Studios began life at the Menier, as did the production of Sunday in the Park With George that is about to open on Broadway. It’s latest production — a revival of La Cage aux Folles — has received glowing reviews and will almost certainly transfer to the West End later this year.

While the Menier’s success can partly be chalked up to the entrepreneurial zeal of its two founders, David Babani and Danielle Tarento (who run a 60-seat restaurant alongside the theatre), it also finds space for new work in its repertoire. In 2005, for instance, a play by Ryan Craig called What We Did to Weinstein was short-listed for the Evening Standard’s “Most Promising Playwright” award. It is doubtful that the Menier would have been so artistically successful if its directors had the safety net of an Arts Council grant.

The real dispute here isn’t between commercially-minded philistines and high-minded theatre-lovers. Rather, the issue turns on who you consider the best judges of artistic merit: the theatre-going public or a bunch of Government-appointed apparatchiks. The success of the Menier chocolate Factory implies it is the former.


The Culture Show
Thursday 17th January 2008

This Saturday’s episode of The Culture Show, the BBC arts programme, contained a 10-minute film about the making of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. For those who are interested in seeing it, click here and fast forward to the 22 minutes, 20 seconds mark.

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