I recently went to see RAODS production of When We are Married. I went slightly grudgingly, not expecting to enjoy it, but actually I was thoroughly entertained. The characterisation and comic timing were spot on.
To understand my apprehension, you need to know something about the play. Time for a spoiler alert: if you don’t want to know the plot, look away now!
When We Are Married was written in 1938 and set in Yorkshire some years earlier. Three couples, married on the same day, are celebrating their silver wedding anniversary when they discover that the clergyman who married them was not actually licensed to take weddings, so that technically they are not married. This is a huge embarrassment to them. How can they hold their heads up in their community? It also leads to an examination of the couples’ relationships and to some of them wondering whether or not they want to stay married. J.B. Priestley’s handling of the situation is textbook stuff – it’s cleverly plotted, the characters are well-differentiated and each gets a turn in the spotlight – and the opportunity to see themselves in the mirror. The sharp writing brings out the jokes and particularly the pomposity of the self-made men at the heart of the story.
However, if you consider trying to write that as a modern play: it no longer works. Imagine that three couples find that they’ve spent 25 years together not being married. What are they going to do? If they were going to split up, they’d have done it already – sad but no social stigma. Instead they say “Brilliant! Let’s get married properly and have a knees-up.” And suddenly all the dramatic tension has gone. Even the characters would no longer work – yes, plenty of people are still pompous, but they are pompous in different ways. Staging it now, you have to play it as a period piece.
The same company put on the stage version of ’Allo, ’Allo. Again, I probably need to say something about the show, but listen carefully; I shall say this only once. It’s a French Farce with a set of characters who are all familiar to the audience from the television show: the way they sound, the way they look, the way they behave. Essentially the stage show is trying to recreate something well-known to the audience.
Both those shows drew-in big audiences – because people go to see things they know they’ll like; because audiences look for the safe and the familiar.
The great thing about RAODS is that those shows are only a part of their output. They also put on plenty of shows that are considerably less safe and much less familiar. (From their recent output, I’d single-out The Collector and most recently Ella Hickson’s Precious Little Talent.) Putting on shows that few in the audience have heard of is hugely important – because otherwise live theatre is reduced to museum pieces and impersonation competitions.
Theatre needs to encourage new writing, otherwise it atrophies. But it’s difficult; putting on a show is expensive (for anyone, professional or amateur) – it’s easy to lose a lot of money. Performing to an empty theatre is dispiriting. Furthermore, not all new shows are good. Not all experimental theatre will be enjoyable – that’s the nature of experimentation: a lot of experiments fail – but some will be brilliant and mould-breaking.
All of which brings me on to Sky Blue Theatre in Cambridge whose Cambridge Theatre Challenge has become an annual event. It’s a competition – an international competition – for new writing for the stage. (The main rules are that submissions must be in English, unpublished and with a duration of ten to thirty minutes.) The shortlisted plays are all performed as part of the competition. Entries for the 2014 competition close at the end of March. See their web site for all the rest of the information you need.
Get involved! Write something; go to see the final performances; seek out new material to perform or to watch. The future of an art-form depends on you!