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Text 2. Theatres in Britain

There are areas of the arts in which Britain more confidently excels. British theatre is among the liveliest and most innovative in the world. Some would argue that the quality of theatre is a good register of a country’s democratic values. For it is on the stage that some of the most painful questions can be asked about the way we live, both as individuals and as a community.

Over 300 commercial theatres operate in the country, 100 of these in London, and about 40 of them in London’s famous West End. Now commonly known as Theatreland, London’s main theatre district is located in the heart of the West End of Central London, and is traditionally defined by The Strand to the south, Oxford Street to the north, Regent Street to the west, and Kingsway to the east. Prominent theatre streets include Drury Lane, Shaftesbury Avenue, and The Strand. The works staged are predominantly musicals, classic or middle brow plays, and comedy performances.

Most of the theatres in Theatreland are of late Victorian or Edwardian construction and are privately owned. The majority of them have great character, and the largest and best maintained feature grand neo-classical, romanesque, or Victorian facades and luxurious, detailed interior design and decoration. On the other hand, leg room is often cramped, and audience facilities such as bars and toilets are often much smaller than in modern theatres.

West End shows may run for a varying number of weeks, depending on ticket sales. Musicals tend to have longer runs than dramas. The longest running musical in West End history is Les Misérables. It overtook Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, which closed in 2002 after running for 8,949 performances and 21 years. Other long-runners include Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera and Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers. However the non-musical Agatha Christie play The Mousetrap is the longest running show in the world, and has been showing since 1952.

However, the real vitality of British theatre is to be found less in the West End than in the regional, “fringe” and pub theatres all over the country. West End theatres are essentially commercial. They stage what will fill the house, which means there is an emphasis on musicals, comedy and other forms of light entertainment. They depend on foreign tourists to fill up to 40 per cent of seats.

Fringe theatre is a term used to describe alternative theatre, or entertainment not of the mainstream. The term comes from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which name comes from Robert Kemp, who described the unofficial companies performing at the same time as the second Edinburgh International Festival (1948) as a ‘fringe’, writing: “Round the fringe of official Festival drama, there seems to be more private enterprise than before”. The term has since been adopted by the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and thence by alternative theatres and alternative theatre festivals.

In London, United Kingdom, the Fringe is the term given to small scale theatres, many of them located above pubs.

    The Old Joint Stock pub and theatre For example, The Old Joint Stock Theatre is a pub theatre located at 4 Temple Row West in the centre of Birmingham, England. City Centre pub – The Old Joint Stock– unveiled its 80-seat studio theatre in October 2006 above the pub in rooms that were derelict. The theatre includes full dressing and green room facilities, a box office, cloakroom and lounge area for interval drinks, as well as a demountable stage and seating that allows each production or hire to inhabit the space to it’s best potential. Technically, the space is better equipped than most pub theatres or small studios.

The venue hosts music nights, comedy nights, one-off evenings and a whole range of plays; from the classics to new works; locally written productions to old favourites. The theatre is ideal for corporate evenings, not just with what’s on offer in the theatre programme, but exclusive casino, comedy, and sports orientated fun evenings with buffet and personal bar staff service.

However, much of the liveliest theatre has grown out of “rep”, the repertory movement. A repertory theatre is usually a theatre in which a resident company presents works from a specified repertoire, usually in alternation or rotation. In the British system it used to be that even quite small towns would support a rep, and the resident company would present a different play every week, either a revival from the full range of classics or, if given the chance, a new play, once the rights had been released after a West End run.

Repertory movement experienced a major revival from 1958 when the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry was built, the first new regional theatre for over twenty years. The Belgrade Theatre is a live performance venue seating 866 and situated in Coventry, England. It was the first civic theatre to be built after the Second World War in Britain and as such was more than a place of entertainment. It joined the new Coventry Cathedral as a symbol of optimism and culture in one of the largest re-development projects then undertaken, to rebuild the city of Coventry, which had been almost totally destroyed by bombing. The Belgrade acquired its name in recognition and thanks for a gift of timber from the Serbian city of Belgrade that was used extensively in the construction of the auditorium. Since opening in 1958, the theatre has established itself as a centre for the new and innovative production.

Having pioneered the Theatre-in-Education movement in the 1960s the theatre continues to work with disadvantaged young people and uses drama as a tool to develop personal and social skills.

Much of the excellence of these theatres is a result of the intensive preparation and speed with which productions are staged, and their short performance lifespan, usually four to six weeks. Their intensity and freshness is not allowed to grow stale. Another important feature, however, is the youthfulness of many of the best productions. Length of experience in Britain is not allowed to stand in the way of talent, and as a result young people, some recently from drama school, perform many leading roles.

Almost all of the theatres receive some government subsidy, but significantly less than most theatres in continental Europe. Some theatres have been unable to continue, and have closed. Most are forced to mix their more adventurous productions with safer, more commercial productions.

Nevertheless, even though British theatre laments the lack of support, inadequate financing creates a permanent sense of tension and hardship in which some of Britain’s best drama is staged. Fringe and pub theatre doubled in size during the 1980s, becoming a popular form of less conventional theatre. These theatres, like the Gate in Netting Hill Gate and the Bush in Shepherd’s Bush (both in west London) operate entirely without subsidy. The latter was established in 1972 above The Bush public house, and has since become one of the most celebrated new writing theatres in the world. An intimate venue renowned for its close-up storytelling, the theatre holds a maximum audience of approximately 80. The Bush runs a Writers

The Bush. Fill image Development Programme, with an open script submissions policy, and reads over 1,000 scripts each year. The theatre looks for exciting new voices that tell contemporary stories with wit, style and passion, and champions work that is both provocative and entertaining.

Many theatres like The Bush still operate in the informality of a room above a pub, and with the actors often receiving little more than their travelling expenses Why do actors work for so little or no money? One reason is that actors like to keep in practice in the sometimes long periods between their engagements, but a more serious reason is that many actors can only earn a living in film or television, performing meaningless and unrewarding roles in thrillers and so forth. Many became actors to perform serious drama. If they cannot do it for a living, they do it when they are free for little or no money. This is a measure of the very high level of artistic commitment in British theatre. What is worth seeing and what is not? Many people rely on the critics in the press, or buy Time Out, a magazine devoted to listing and recommending current drama, music and other arts in Britain each week.

(from “Continuum Companion to XX century theatre”)


3. Explain the meaning of the following words and word-combinations.


to excel regional theatre fringe theatre pub theatre a celebrated actor innovative commercial theatre repertory movement current drama to be hailed


4. Answer the following questions.


1) Do you agree that the theatre is a good register of a country’s democratic values and a reflection of the most painful questions? Motivate your answer.

2) What kind of performances do most West End theatres stage and why?

3) What are the most significant features of British Theatre according to the text?

4) How does theatre in Britain suffer from inadequate financing and what does it result in?



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