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Theatreland

Theatreland: Behind the Scenes at London’s Theatre Royal, Haymarket. GB. DVD. 2009. 480 minutes. £9.99

About the reviewer: Mark Taylor-Batty is Senior Lecturer in Theatre Studies at the University of Leeds. His key areas of interest include the career of Harold Pinter, the theatricality of Samuel Beckett and aspects of Twentieth-century French theatre. His research on the rehearsal processes of Roger Blin and his artistic relationships with Adamov, Artaud, Barrault, Beckett, and Genet came to fruition in the book Roger Blin: Collaborations and Methodologies (Peter Lang); he has also published two books on Harold Pinter: one for the Northcote House ‘Writers and their Work’ series published in 2001 and About Pinter: The Playwright and The Work (Faber and Faber) in 2005. He is currently an executive of the International Harold Pinter Society and co-editor of the journal Performing Ethos. In 2009 he published a book on Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in collaboration with his wife Juliette Taylor-Batty, as part of the Continuum Modern Theatre Guides series.

Theatreland is a made-for-television observational documentary which takes viewers behind the scenes at London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket during its 2008-09 season. The format has become well-known over the last decade or so on television, since the BBC’s Airport established the genre in the mid-1990s. Over eight episodes of the one season captured on this DVD, the programme follows the daily running of the theatre during their sold-out run of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and preparations for a production of Breakfast at Tiffiny’s, adapted by Samuel Adamson. The first episode coincides with theatre’s new artistic director, Sean Mathias, arriving to present his debut production, one of the most significant theatrical events of 2009: Beckett’s classic play starring no other than Simon Callow, Sir Ian McKellen, Ronald Pickup and Patrick Stewart. In the fifth episode, we meet Anna Friel, who will play the lead in the Truman Capote adaptation, waiting ‘in the wings’ as the theatre machine gears up to prepare a new production as the run of Godot comes to a close.

Over the eight episodes we meet not only the stars of stage and screen who tread the boards, but the busy backstage team who keep the theatre running. The master carpenter Tony Brunt and James Whitwell the head flyman make repeated jovial appearances, at rest or at work, and tantalizing glimpses of McKellan and Stewart as Vladimir and Estragon are intercut with scenes of the pair checking the water tank in the roof or pulling down rotten Victorian plaster from a ceiling. The juxtaposition of the mundane, such as fixing the plumbing in the actors’ toilets, with the satisfying exposure to the reflections of key British actors on their profession can be frustrating, but occasionally these combinations produce appealing results, such as when the star-struck usherette Rossie overhears with delight Simon Callow bemoaning that he had Maggie Smith distractingly in his eye-line throughout his first act appearance. Her amused assessment that these legendary actors were like schoolboys backstage at their first performance rings true, and such moments captured are amongst the treats of this series.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIz-zwbXxQc

The value of the DVD to an education audience is mixed. The nature of the television series dictates that information comes in brief packets and scenes are cut quickly to keep up pace and interest, with the result that no issue or aspect is lingered upon for too long. The Beckett scholar, for example, might find irritation at the bullet-point approach to summing up Waiting for Godot, and feel short-changed at the limited range of questions put to the illustrious cast of that production. The ambition of the programme, though, is to pass the camera lens over every aspect of the theatre’s working existence, and this in itself offers a broad spectrum of enlightening revelations to those studying the theatre or preparing for the profession. The theatre as a customer-facing business is readily demonstrated, and the detail of the backstage demands of different productions is both fascinating and informative. Details such as the daily checking of the auditorium seats, whose 100 year old infrastructure requires such detailed care, is indicative of the level of professionalism needed to keep such a building, and its creative content, up and running.

… offers a broad spectrum of enlightening revelations to those studying the theatre

The importance of getting the ticket selling companies on-side is emphasized and the consequence of the critics’ reviews is exposed in the variety of responses given to them, from the chairman Arthur Crook to the carpenters to the cleaners, all of whom are clearly heavily invested in and proud of the creative work of the theatre. The sense of team-work is compelling. Given 72 hours to get a hefty, layered set up and installed in the space that was once occupied by the sparse Beckett scenery, the crew labour with both sweaty lugging and intricate care for detail. The brief period of time set aside for rehearsals and the physical demands upon actors expose the lie that their work is a stroll in the park. We see Anna Friel struggling to learn to play guitar, take exerting dancing lessons and work out in a gym to get her in shape enough to be able to face the long run that is ahead of her. When Patrick Stewarts voice finally gives in, despite the Stage Manager’s every effort to keep him stocked up on throat lozenges, we get to meet the understudy who finally gets to leave the dressing room in which he sits night by night filling in crosswords.

With the exception of one episode, which is dedicated to the theatre’s resident ghost (who made an appearance in the wings stage-right one night, to Patrick Stewart’s great consternation), each part offers a host of detail on the everyday running of a major West End theatre that, by accumulation, reveals the network and variety of inter-dependent skills that work in harmony to keep the business operative.

Mark Taylor-Batty

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