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July 20, 2005 || 1:47 pm

Yesterday I spent a lot of the day sitting in the National Theatre watching Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. And the other day I spent an hour or so in Sadler's Wells watching the much-acclaimed new collaboration between Akram Khan, Anthony Gormley, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Nitin Sawnhey.

Now, as someone who hasn't been to the theatre for a year but who previously went at least once a month, often much more, and had a real passion, nay evangelism, about the performing arts, my reaction to these shows was quite surprising. I really found myself spectacularly unmoved. It was all quite nice, but the joy and love, and quite visceral sense of empathy and catharsis, that I usually get from really good theatre (and almost always from Shakespeare, no matter how badly performed, due to the quality of the language) was totally missing.

The Akram Khan piece was fun enough - certainly I appreciated the skill of the performers - but ultimately I didn't really understand its message if there was one, and failed to uncover deeper meanings behind the gestures, any symbolic structure or emotional content. It was pretty but I remained unmoved - yet all my companions (and none of them are pushovers when it comes to high art) raved about it over dinner afterwards.

Henry IV - well, as it began, and characters in Tudor-ish costumes started to declaim on stage, not only did I find that I could barely pick out a word that they were saying (my ears too attuned to the slowness of Southern speech?) but the conceit of the set, costumes, exaggerated voices and mannerisms served to distance me totally from the 'drama'. I felt like I was experiencing Shakespeare for the first time, with all the alienation that I had never understood before that first-time theatre-goers complain of. Why did they have to speak so loudly? Why the forced unfunny jokes and pregnant pauses? and all the swooshing costumes and prosthetic bellies and noses?

Never before had I exited a Shakespeare play and felt totally unmoved. Kings and wars I know have no direct relevance to my current concerns, but what I had always loved in Shakespeare was the way he wove the universal and human into these artificial narratives. I could see which bits I was meant to find moving and significant, but they failed to touch me. Maybe it was the fault of the production, which seemed stuck in that very English tradition of staging and styling which seems to have been the norm for twenty years - but again, my companions, who can be highly critical, praised it, and it has been reviewed well.

My thoughts and reaction to what was on stage in front of me were the perfect mirror of Peter Brook's famous criticisms of the 'dead' theatre and its falsity. I wanted voices speaking normally, without the 'Shakespearian' declamation and posh accents, and without the mannerisms that signalled what they were supposed to with all the subtlety (it appeared to me) of a traffic light. I didn't want weeping and wailing and thigh-slappping jokes that went on too long. I couldn't understand why the only part of the plays where they spoke slowly enough for me to hear every word was the most supremely cringeworthy 'funny' scene between Justic Shallow, Silence and Falstaff, every creak of which made me want to run for my life.

But this was 'post-Brook' theatre - and yet it seemed to have learnt nothing. I can understand, finally, why schoolkids hate Shakespeare. Productions like this, if they make other newcomers feel as wretched as this one, are more dangerous to the cause of converting a new generation to theatre than they are helpful, for all the Travelex £10 tickets on sale. I love Shakespeare and he is the source of absolute spiritual sustenance for me - yet here I couldn't hear his beautiful language and found it utterly distorted when I could. But maybe I overreacted and a year as a redneck has dulled my senses. But the fact remains that I felt this world of theatre was alien and irrelevant, made for itself and those within its little world, and not for me.



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