mon 16/12/2019

Alistair Beaton: 'If you’re bored, it’ll be my fault' | reviews, news & interviews

Alistair Beaton: 'If you’re bored, it’ll be my fault'

Alistair Beaton: 'If you’re bored, it’ll be my fault'

The author of 'The Accidental Leader', one of five short plays at the Arts Theatre, admits his difficulty in distinguishing between comedy and tragedy

Sarah Alexander in Alistair Beaton's 'The Accidental Leader'© Robert Workman

It’s either serious or it’s funny. That’s a view I quite often encountered when working in Germany. A theatre professional there once advised me to remove all references to writing television comedy from my biography in the theatre programme.

“Why?” I asked.

“People will think you’re not a serious playwright.”

“A serious playwright can’t write comedy?”

“It’s a bit worse than that.”

“How, exactly?”

“Well, it’s not just that you’re writing comedy, it’s that you’re writing comedy for television.”

“Is that bad?”

“It’s not good.”

“In what way is it not good?”

“Television is Unterhaltung.”

And there we had it. The dreaded Unterhaltung, meaning “entertainment”. In the minds of the black-clad perpetrators of deadly dull and often deeply pretentious theatre, to entertain the audience is to betray one’s principles. In this school of thought, if the audience is bored, it’s their own fault. Whereas I tend to believe that if the audience is bored it’s the playwright’s fault. Or the director’s. Or (very occasionally) the actor’s. (Pictured below: Alistair Beaton)

This quiet intellectual contempt for entertainment is closely connected to the development in Germany of Regietheater, or director’s theatre, where the text is merely the backdrop against which the all-powerful director can display his or her extraordinary genius. Alarmingly, there are signs that this philosophy is spreading to England, where traditionally the director’s role has been to elucidate the text, rather than reduce the words to a playground for the director’s fevered imaginings.

Max Stafford-Clark, who has directed the five short plays that form A View from Islington North, is firmly of the text-elucidation school. This does mean, of course, that the writer has every single line tested to destruction during rehearsals, a process that is intermittently exhausting but ultimately satisfying. This escape from Regietheater (where frankly the writer would be wise never to set foot in the rehearsal room) also allows us to escape from the straitjacket of genre. Suddenly it’s clear that the masks of comedy and tragedy can happily be worn in the same production. 

Politics, being about how we are governed, is a deadly serious business, which is why it lends itself so well to comedy. Whether we call it satire or not doesn’t really matter. What matters is that theatre can thereby combine the playful and the serious. Entertaining the audience is an honourable endeavour; provoking and informing the audience is equally honourable. That’s why it’s such a pleasure to be involved in this new project at the Arts Theatre. Please do go along and take a look. If you’re bored, it’ll be my fault. Unless of course you’re bored by one of the other four plays. That’s the great thing about having five writers involved in one event: if it goes wrong there are more people to blame. On the other hand, if it goes well, the glory has to be shared. It’s not a perfect world.

© Alistair Beaton 2016

Politics, being about how we are governed, is a deadly serious business, which is why it lends itself so well to comedy

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