wed 23/10/2019

The South Bank Show, ITV1 | reviews, news & interviews

The South Bank Show, ITV1

The South Bank Show, ITV1

Melvyn Bragg's arts flagship bows out with a fine film about the Royal Shakespeare Company

The RSC's artistic director Michael Boyd with Melvyn Bragg

The end of the South Bank Show? Surely some mistake. But there was Melvyn, looking into the camera with a resigned air, telling us that this film about the Royal Shakespeare Company (“possibly the greatest theatre company in the world”) was indeed the end of the line, give or take the occasional retrospective special. There must have been a temptation to attempt something extravagant and all-encompassing, but instead director Naomi Wright’s film was distinguished by its discipline and focus, as if to exemplify what the South Bank Show was always supposed to be about.

The piece homed in on the RSC’s production of Ukrainian playwright Natalia Vorozhbit’s The Grain Store, an account of the 1933 famine in the Ukraine which left 5million dead of starvation. A news blackout was imposed by the Soviet regime, and public discussion of the famine (known in the Ukraine as the Holodomor, or “death by starvation”) was suppressed, but the Ukrainians have never been in any doubt that it was Stalin’s revenge on the Ukrainian farmers who were resistant to his farm collectivisation policies. A number of countries have joined the Ukraine in categorising the famine as genocide.

Vorozhbit’s play draws on the memories of her family and friends from their home village. Her grandmother survived both famine and the Nazi invasion, and believes that “war is bad but the famine was even worse.” She recalled how local state officials – “the communists” - would come round and confiscate the population’s personal stores of food, leaving them to cope however they could. Haunting contemporary photographs recorded barely-imaginable scenes of corpses littering the streets. A tale of how a local woman had taken in a seven-year-old boy, cut him up into cutlets and then sold them to neighbouring villagers has entered famine folklore. The story goes that the woman was subsequently put into a zoo in Poltava, where she grew a horn on her forehead.

As the RSC’s artistic director Michael Boyd put it, the long suppression of the famine has meant that it has now re-emerged in magic-realist form, where the story of the horned woman assumes a potent figurative meaning. All this hooked up nicely with Boyd’s own experiences of working in a Russian theatre company during the Seventies, where he learned that “theatre was the most important art form because it was the least censorable.” To escape the oppressive scrutiny of the KGB, it was necessary for writers and performers to cultivate ambiguity and metaphor while still making their desired points register vividly with audiences. Boyd felt that viewing BrItain from a Russian perspective had helped him to “hold a mirror up to nature”, and far from seeing Britain as an oasis of artistic freedom, it had seemed to him that inexorable commercialisation was making the population steadily more conservative and risk-averse. Today’s all-pervading cult of celebrity was mentioned, and not in an admiring way.

This has helped to fuel Boyd’s drive to thrust the RSC back into what he calls a “social conversation” with its audience. It’s an ambition he believes was central to Peter Hall’s thinking when he founded the company in 1960, planning from the outset to champion new writing alongside Shakespearean work. Prodded by questioning from a Melvyn Bragg clearly sympathetic to this vision of high art as a vital form of collective nourishment, Boyd discussed how he has embraced an ensemble approach using groups of actors forming extended working relationships, and has energetically pushed forward the construction of the company’s new theatre in Stratford, due to open next year. The building has been designed to thrust the players out into the embrace of the audience, in a physical realisation of Boyd’s objective of plugging the RSC back into intimate contact with the citizenry.

So as the South Bank Show ends, the RSC has embarked on a fresh creative cycle. Is Lord Bragg planning to do likewise?

Melvyn Bragg is clearly sympathetic to this vision of high art as a vital form of collective nourishment

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