English Touring Theatre have set audiences a tricky conundrum this autumn: you’re invited to head to their website and pick your favourite play. They plan to tour the most popular ones next year, rights permitting. In theory, this is a great chance to hunt through our memories and pick out the plays we love the most. But it’s not as easy as that.
Firstly, they have limited the choice to English language plays, which leaves Hamlet and All My Sons in the running, but immediately removes my favourite: Euripides’ Medea (please don’t write to social services: I don’t have children). So if you are a fan of Ibsen, Lorca, Chekhov or Brecht, that’s too bad. You need to look closer to (or further from) home.
Secondly, they have wisely made it a vote for our favourite plays rather than the ones we think are best. It would be hard to argue that the big Alans (Ayckbourn, Bennett and Plater) are better playwrights than Shakespeare, but easy to admit to preferring them. If you like The History Boys better than the history plays, you can vote accordingly.
Lists of ‘the best’ anything — plays, films, books — tend to include longevity as a criterion: Citizen Kane has stood the test of time to become a classic, which can’t be said (yet) for your favourite movie from 2012. So one of the advantages of picking our favourites is that recent hits like Enron, Jerusalem or Chimerica would have a good chance of being performed alongside Sheridan and Marlowe.
The ETT has also decided to divide up voting according to which region you live in: operating on the sensible theory that what is big in one part of the country may not necessarily be popular in another, as anyone who’s ever toured live shows knows to be the case. So people will be able to vote for their local hero (surely Willy Russell has the Liverpool vote in the bag) or look further afield if they prefer Tennessee Williams or David Mamet.
But I’m finding the biggest problem to be the difficulty of dividing the play from the production. I once saw a version of Dario Fo’s Archangels Don’t Play Pinball (ineligible for this, thankfully) which ran at 150 minutes. Two-and-a-half hours of farce is a good two hours more than I can tolerate, and I have never forgiven the play for the bloody awful evening it once gave me. But on the other hand, I was lucky enough to see Kathleen Turner in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a few years later, and I have never come close to forgetting how extraordinary she was. I’m certain I value the play so highly because the first performance I saw was so good.
So, how to pick a favourite play from hundreds of years and several continents? I think I may need an interval drink before I decide.
Vivienne Westwood tells us that we’re all buying too many clothes, which seems ungrateful as I’m pretty sure that’s how she pays her bills. She’s especially concerned with poor people who ‘should be even more careful’. She goes on to advise, ‘Instead of buying six things, buy one thing that you really like’.
It’s hard to imagine a more condescending attitude. Perhaps she doesn’t know that six things from H&M or Topshop would still be vastly cheaper than one thing from the Vivienne Westwood collection, beautiful as her clothes are. Perhaps she doesn’t realise that people who have jobs might need more than one thing to wear each week at work. They might need, say, six things — one for each day, and a spare. And since the fashion industry is predicated on convincing people that last year’s clothes aren’t good enough, she’s on shaky ground criticising those who’ve believed it.