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Celebrity Obsession A Stage Too Far?

Jun 17, 2008
Author, director, comedian, physician and all round polymath Jonathan Miller has been all over The Times and the BBC this week running the West End into the proverbial square ditch. Miller insisted that because his version of Hamlet was cast by relative unknowns he couldn't get a gig in the West End. "Producers might have been swayed" he contends, "if I'd been prepared to put in for more luminous names".

Attacks may not come any more thinly veiled than that, but Miller continues his tirade by discussing the two versions of Shakespeare's seminal tragedy that are currently sulking moodily in the West End. The version at the Wyndams Theatre is fronted by a Mr Jude Law whom Miller suspects "can't act better than the young unknown who played him for me" whilst at the RSC they have "that man from Dr Who". Of course, Miller is referring here to hip, young actor David Tennant who will be leading the company from 24th July.

Of course, Miller's remarks have not gone unnoticed by the theatrical powers that be. The artistic director of the RSC, Michael Boyd, hit back by declaring that though he "understood" Sir Jonathan's frustrations, Tennant was not cast as Hamlet just "because he is Doctor Who", but "because he is an excellent actor who deserves to play the role" Boyd went on to site the work Tennant has already done with the company before becoming a household name, starring in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet and The Comedy of Errors.

David continues: "Of course, the fact that David went on to become hugely popular as Doctor Who and for his other popular TV roles, means that he brings with him audiences who would not necessarily have booked to see Hamlet which can only be a good thing,"...

Hang on a minute, we've suddenly veered into fairly familiar waters haven't we? Theatre producers refuting claims of 'dumbing down' by insisting that they are 'drawing in new audiences'. One envisages Webber and Mackintosh, probably capped in berets, calling out from their golden soapbox at the head of a long line of theatrical liberators. But can theatre really be dressed up in this 'Masses Vs Classes' kefuffle? Art, surely, is for art sake?

So then we come to the crunch, how does this affect quality? Does sticking Christian Slater in the Edinburgh run of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest make the production any better or worse? That, of course, is nigh on impossible to answer; would it even have got the gig without his big Hollywood name plastered all over it? One thing is certain though, it does make the play stand out. A familiar face is recognisable whether it is a pleasing sight or not.

With established West End musicals like Chicago casting, well, dubious pop stars like Kelly Osbourne and Duncan James for brief turns in its run, we may question some of the underlying motives working behind the scenes. Are performers like Osbourne and James really the most talented people vying for the role, or are they cast because they have the highest profile?

Similarly, the front page of this week's Stage Newspaper is adorned with the exclusive story that Gareth Gates is to make his West End debut in a one night Stiles and Drewe tribute gala at Her Majesty's Theatre. Accompanied by a throng of 'Any Dream Will Do' and 'How do You Solve A Problem Like Maria' finalists, the more cynical reader may question why this fairly underwhelming spectacle is splashed across the front page? The answer, quite simply, is because Celebrity (Sex's flatter and more nauseatingly vain half cousin) sells.

Miller's attack on West End producers might carry more weight if star-studdied performances, good or bad, didn't attract the biggest crowds. Perhaps if theatre was given a more central role in popular entertainment audiences would be more familiar with the art form and worry less about catching a famous name in the lime light. Until then celebrities will draw the biggest crowds, the highest prices and, unfortunately for Sir Jonathan Miller, the best theatres.
About the Author
Samantha is a London theatre fanatic and regular West End theatregoer. She writes and researches some of the biggest London shows you can view examples of her work here London Shows, Dirty Dancing and Joseph.
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