theatre afraid

Is Theatre Afraid to Entertain?

While Welsh theatre has produced some great plays in recent years, Nick Davies asks if the sector has forgotten how to enjoy itself. Has ‘entertainment’ really become a dirty word?

Last year, I gave a very positive review to a stage play, citing its intelligence and the uncompromising way it tackled apposite socio-political themes. While the play in question was a story cloaked in frosty darkness and at times a difficult watch, I felt it to be an important piece of work and worthy of praise. The day after my review, I was contacted by a theatre-maker who I like and admire very much, gleefully agreeing with my critique. “I hate entertainment,” they said. “Long live thinking.”

The sentiment struck me as peculiar, not least because I hadn’t accused the play of being unentertaining. But it made me ponder why it would be assumed that a production created to inspire thought would be placed on a higher plain than something designed to entertain? And why can’t a good story do both? What does ‘entertainment’ really mean, and why has it become a dirty word, especially in theatre (the subsidised sector, anyway)?

An idle perusal of theatres’ marketing blurb throws up words like powerful, thought-provoking, important, stark, dark, tragic and relevant many times over [and please, please, marketers, stop with the cliché “As relevant today as when it was first written” about every revival of a classic]. All positive adjectives, but there’s little sense of anyone enjoying themselves. If you google the definition of the word entertainment, the very first example that appears is: “Everyone just sits in front of the television for entertainment.” Already, the connotations are negative with an equal disdain for entertainment and television that would shame even a 1980s parent trying to encourage their square-eyed children off the sofa and into the sunshine outside.

When one thinks of entertainment in the context of theatre, then images are conjured of cheap gags and club singers, of throwaway frippery. Just two paragraphs ago, I fell into that trap by implying entertainment means the audience enjoying themselves. Yet, it’s not just that. It’s an audience engaging positively with the material and the actors on stage – an audience being moved. Presumably that’s what any good story should do. And yet very few plays (none during my online search of venue websites) ever admit to being entertaining. Of course, there are musicals and commercial shows that wear their heart on their sleeve. My recent scan of venue marketing throws up words to describe these productions that would make many a ‘serious’ theatre-maker scoff: joyful, exhilarating, uplifting… The venues know these definitions will attract audiences, telling them they will have a good night out, and yet the terminology flips when describing anything that’s been publicly funded.

Gareth Bale is Grav

When I worked at the Arts Council of Wales, I was, in part, responsible for this. I remember a conversation with a stand-up comedian in which I tried to explain why we didn’t fund comedy. Work with comedy in it was eligible for funding, I said, but someone telling gags on stage was not. “Ah, so you would fund something that’s a bit funny,” he said, trying to understand my bumbling explanation, “but not anything that’s too funny.” Of course, the real reason is that there is a direct commercial route for comedians which means public money is less warranted (God, I wish I’d put it as well then), but I realise this nervousness about anything appearing too entertaining was deep-rooted. Every time I opened a new project application from a theatre company, I would be genuinely excited to see what they were cooking up – I can honestly say that in my whole time at ACW, that excitement, and the sense of privilege of being let in on talented people’s plans never left me. And yet, often, the project description would go something like this: “In accordance with ACW’s strategic priorities on inclusion, diversity, Welsh language and whatever else has been added this year, our company will seek to create a play that explores notions of identity, polarity and the environmental crisis.” So far, so good, but what’s it about?! I would get to the end of the project description and still not know, only that we will be somehow healed by seeing it.

I would sometimes imagine what would happen if a famous film applied for ACW funding. “This production will tackle important themes of immigration, isolation and the absence of a parent…” Crikey, I would think, this sounds like it’s going to be worthy, but really hard work. I would turn to the front of the application to see who sent it in… NAME OF APPLICANT: S. SPIELBERG; PROJECT TITLE: E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL.

My assertion is that, if a story is strong (like E.T. or millions of other examples), then an audience will be entertained – be it amused, inspired, awed, saddened, scared, even distressed – and any messages will filter through by osmosis. Messages that are every bit as important as those espousing something unabashedly intellectual or political.

I recently wrote my review of the past decade of Welsh theatre. While it was meant to be a reflection on just some of the themes and issues that resonated through the last ten years and NOT a best-of list (though thanks to all those theatre-makers who contacted me to remind me I’d failed to mention their show!), it struck me that I didn’t reference many of the plays that I had enjoyed the most in that time. Shows that still resonate in a way some supposedly more important plays do not. Shows like Grav (Torch Theatre) that was joyful and yet poignant, especially around memories of his father; The Wizard, The Goat & The Man Who Won the War (Theatr Cadair/Taliesin) in which an ageing Lloyd George waited in vain for a date with a girl who would never come; The Eye of the Storm (Theatr na nÓg), that combined music and science to tell an inspiring story. Intelligent dramas and yet also entertaining. In short: cracking stories.

So, while I wouldn’t want every subsidised play to be created for all demographics, I think it’s time we celebrated those that might hold a broader appeal. Shows that engage, shows that connect. While critics like me will bandy around words like bold or daring when discussing overtly political texts, perhaps it’s actually the makers of work that is both intelligently written and – dare I say it – entertaining, that are the really brave ones. For me, that’s the toughest thing to get right, but when it happens, that’s entertainment.