In Praise of Bad Productions (or what I learned from watching Damned by Despair)

There is a storm brewing in the air. I haven’t got around to writing my own review of Damned by Despair yet (Update: you can find my full review here), but it’s obvious it provokes extreme reactions: revstan liked it a lot, but there are ramblings on twitter by people who hated it with passion and commitment. One particularly militant theatregoer has written an open letter to Nic Hytner to withdraw the production “for the sake of the reputation of the National Theatre and and any compassion you have for the unfortunate actors taking part in it” (posted at the National Theatre facebook page).

Isn’t this an overreaction? (I still can’t see where the strength of feeling comes from). More importantly do we think some productions shouldn’t be offered to an audience on the basis of artistic merit? It seems reasonable. After all, if we could identify bad productions before they get in front of an audience, I wouldn’t have sat through the Young Vic production of Three Sisters. Could we do that? Even if other people loved it, can we ban it on my account?

In the end, the headline of this post is misleading (and it might imply Damned by Despair is a bad production, which is not). I am defending “bad” productions only because noone can identify them with any degree of certainty. We can all agree a “bad” production can’t be defined as a production I hate. And if it’s not defined by the dislike of one person, it can’t be defined by the dislike of many (or even all). Even if all of us hate something, that’s not enough to make it worthless. Art is not a democracy, a show of hands is neither conclusive or appropriate.

In the end, artists need space to fail. You need to risk something of value in order to find something true. I feel uncomfortable with the way media cover the arts, because at every stage the approach is that of a boxing match. Is it a hit or a miss? What’s the star rating? How many Hamlets can you pit against each other? And who is going to fall at the next hurdle? It’s steering gossip, and as consumer advice it has its value, but does it have anything to do with art as the ultimate adventure?

Of course someone makes some choices based on artistic merit and talent. After all, Nic Hytner hasn’t come knocking on my door for me to write or direct a play. He chooses people because he thinks they can offer something good. And then let’s them try to discover it. And we get to see it and love it and hate it and dissect it. As an audience member, you take part in their adventure, and the experience has any value only if we get to risk something as well (even if it is only a few hours of our time). You can’t guarantee the artistic result in advance. Bad productions are essential to great theatre.

4 responses to “In Praise of Bad Productions (or what I learned from watching Damned by Despair)

  1. I agree totally with what you’ve said: without risks, we wouldn’t have got some of the best new shows of recent years. London Road is a classic example. Sold really poorly until the reviews came out (it’s not commercial material) and then it sold out in minutes, with an extended run in the Cottesloe and then a run in the Olivier. Similarly, After the Dance- a rarely performed Rattigan play, wasn’t selling brilliantly (remember, Benedict Cumberbatch wasn’t hot material then) and then it took off after a stream of 5*. These were both ‘risks’ (money wise, certainly), and ones which paid off.

    But then at the same time, they’ll be those which don’t pay off- Greenland, Rocket to the Moon and by the sounds of it, Damned by Despair. Not every show at the NT can have a big headline star name (Julie Walters, SRB, James Corden, Billie Piper etc). Some could say the One Man, Two Guvnors, was a risk- it could’ve been awful (I remember some very negative twitter reaction whilst it was in previews). But it paid off, though commercially it was helped by Corden’s presence to give it wider coverage. It now though it fending for itself just fine at the Haymarket.

    The NT has a duty to stage some rarely performed plays, like Emperor & Galilean, After the Dance, Rocket to the Moon, Scenes from an Execution and Damned by Despair; sometimes it works, sometimes not. Outside of the NT, I remember when Grandage revived Chekhov’s Ivanov in the Donmar West End season- not well known (unlike, say, The Cherry Orchard), wouldn’t have worked commerically, but it got some bloody good reviews.

    The need to take risks in theatre in order for some really good quality work to come about is why we have subsidies. And so the NT should praised for staging DBD, even if it is no good. We need variety, and as audiences, we need to discover new work. You can’t have good theatre without bad theatre. I’ve never not got anything out of a trip to the theatre… there’s always been (and always will be) something good, or interesting, or even how it’s not to be done!

    • Shows I don’t like put the good productions into perspective: it’s easy to take a great production, a production that thrills you and excites you, for granted. After all, the best of them makes it look easy, natural, inevitable. When I get bored sitting in a theatre, I am forced to think what’s different this time, and that’s extremely valuable.

  2. Good article, and perfectly fair point of view. I think there are two sorts of “bad” productions: difficult plays that simply don’t appeal to particular reviewers (such as this one seems to be, and Emperor and Galilean was for a lot of people); and slapdash or incoherent productions (in my view, Katie Mitchell’s sub-Pina Bausch production of Iphigenia at Aulis, although others loved it). Occasionally, you get the perfect storm – a production that falls into both categories. For me, that was Fram at the NT – a load of inconclusive meditations about why the world is so horrible given an inert, static production. All I learned from that is that I should have followed my instincts and left at the interval.

    • I think my point is that even incoherent productions have their place. Because noone aims to be incoherent. And I don’t object to leaving at the interval (although some times it’s difficult to judge whether I want to leave because I am knackered or because something is worse than usual).

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