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The Age of the Theatrical Blockbuster

 Saturday, 6th May, 2017

Club Member and theatre critic, Mark Shenton, proves that long haul theatre can bear the sweetest fruit.

Theatre is, all too often these days, not much more than the equivalent of an aperitif: a quick 70 or 80 minute divertissement to whet the appetite before you go onto a real meal later. Since so many restaurants have turned into theatrical events in themselves, you get the real meat (in every sense) after leaving the theatre. Just occasionally, too, there are attempts to combine food and theatre into one sitting. Dinner-theatres are a staple of the American regional theatre scene, but they've hardly ever caught on here, though one or two theatres have added good restaurants on the premises to catch a meal before the show, like the National and Royal Court.

But lately there's been a sudden rush of theatrical events that are very, very filling -- and hardly give you time to eat. As I said in my review of Angels in America for The Stage that has just opened at the National, "Everything about the National Theatre’s most eagerly anticipated show of the year is super-sized.... Angels in America is also big on length, with the two parts together running to a full working day – close to eight hours of theatre. The play is even bigger on ideas, ambition and scope."

It's far from the only epic play in town, either. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the biggest theatrical hit of last year which recently won a slew of Olivier Awards, is also presented in two parts that together run to over six hours. In a feature for Whatsonstage, Holly Williams also pointed out, "Recent audiences have strapped in for Ivo van Hove's Shakespeare trilogies – Kings of War splicing together Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III and Roman Tragedies - an interval-free six hours squishing together Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. In Dutch. Sounds like the very definition of a hard sell? Hardly. Look at the starry reviews these productions won, and the fan-club tweeting (helped by being encouraged to get stuck in actually during the latter show, it's true)."

My own review of The Roman Tragedies, again for The Stage, pointed out my own anxiety: "When I first saw Roman Tragedies in 2009, I was new to Van Hove's work and full of trepidation: how would I survive six hours of Shakespeare, in Dutch, with only intermittent breaks of three to 10 minutes? In fact, I was totally blown away – gripped by the relentless, driving theatrical intensity of the event and the bold, up-to-the-minute adaptation, which has been fashioned into a continuous story arc by the director, his translator and a three-strong team of dramaturgs."

In other words, if the show is compelling enough, it justifies the length. The time just flew by.

The same was true of the Chichester trilogy of Chekhov plays that transferred to the National last year. Holly Williams, seeing the same plays, wrote that, "Watching Young Chekhov, I realised as I took a seat one sunny morning that the total experience would be eleven-and-a-half-hours long – the same length of time as a flight to Brazil. But there's also a genuine value to settling in for the long haul: you feel the rewards of really immersing yourself in a story, a world, or a writer's work. A three-show day inevitably – and quite magically – recalibrates your approach to time-keeping. The clock-watching it is so easy to fall into during a two-hour show seems to evaporate."

Last year I experienced an even more extreme version of this, when I put myself through the long haul, in every sense, of seeing a 24 hour show that began at 12noon on Saturday and ended at 12noon on Sunday in New York. It was Taylor Mac's 24-Deace History of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music; he'll be reprising the entire cycle at San Francisco's Curran Theatre from September 15-24. But as the New York Times stated in their news report of this, "The roughly 700 people who saw the show in one continuous 24-hour marathon last October at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn will still have bragging rights. Audiences in San Francisco can see it in four segments presented between Sept. 15 and 24 at the newly restored Curran Theater there."

I'm not sure I'll ever have an experience quite like those 24 hours again; and it made my eleven hour stint at the National (including intervals and a meal break in-between parts one and two) seem small potatoes.

You can book tickets to our NT Live: Angels in America screenings on 20th & 27th July here.