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.