x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Life's grand themes in theatre

The recession has had no effect on London audiences with attendance actually rising by three per cent. A new transatlantic cooperation should only bolster this trend.

In the wrong hands, Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale and Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard are two plays that can be yawn-worthy disasters - though arguably for exactly opposite reasons. Too much happens in the first: a preposterous story of unfounded jealousy, mystic oracles, foolish shepherds, a child lost and found, and statues coming to life. In the most famous stage direction in English literature, a character is even chased (and eaten) by a bear.

In the second, nothing seems to happen. A once-distinguished Russian family come home and moan about having no money; they fail to do anything and their cherry orchard is sold to a man who used to be a serf on their land. But both plays are linked by an undertow of loss, by the death of children, by the sense of time passing, by a contrast between two worlds. And in Sam Mendes's magnificent twin productions which have just opened at London's Old Vic theatre, that parallel is made explicit by a quotation from Richard II projected onto the backdrop as the action begins: "O call back yesterday, bid time return."

The two plays are the first productions staged by The Bridge Project, the creation of Mendes, the Old Vic's artistic director Kevin Spacey and Joseph Melillo of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in New York that seeks to create "a new model of producing". For nine months, this transatlantic repertory company, equally divided between British and American performers and support staff, has rehearsed together (for an almost unprecedented three months) and then toured the world, starting in New York in January, then in Singapore, New Zealand, Spain, Germany and London before finishing at the Athens and Epidaurus Festival in Greece at the end of August. It is an extraordinary commitment on the part of the actors, who include the rising star Rebecca Hall, the great English leading man Simon Russell Beale and the Americans Ethan Hawke and Josh Hamilton.

This is a three-year project: next year, the plays will be The Three Sisters and As You Like It; in 2011, the choices are likely to feature Spacey. Mendes explained that the idea came from "a belief that a good actor is a good actor - it doesn't matter where they come from or what accent they speak in, and that there is a lot to be learnt and shared between the two theatrical cultures." But in some ways the transatlantic nature of the venture is the least interesting thing about it. What shines through these two productions, which have left audiences thrilled wherever they have played, is the value of a company system, which allows actors to spend a long time together exploring great works. Mendes jokes that he has asked the actors to work for nothing and that they are working for "next to nothing"; certainly, they could have earned considerably more if they had devoted far fewer months to making a movie. But what they have gained is a depth of understanding and an ease in their pretend skins that makes these two classic plays seem as urgent, relevant and real as the most contemporary film.

It is a remarkable thing to witness, and it comes at an exciting time. Everyone expected the recession to mark a decline in British theatre-going. In fact, in recent months, London audiences overall have risen three per cent over the same period last year (in itself a record year). But here is the truly extraordinary thing: the audience for straight plays has grown by an astonishing 29 per cent. It is as if people have a hunger for something that matters. All across the capital, it is the plays that engage with the big themes of life, death and loss that are packed out night after night. In offering these rich encounters with Chekhov and Shakespeare, the Bridge Project helps audiences to experience something special; less a good night out than a guide to life.