Olivier Awards: why British theatre is best
Last night was a big night for British theatre – the 35th Olivier Awards took place at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. There were big wins for some of my favourite productions of the year; Clybourne Park at the Royal Court, After the Dance at the National, Legally Blonde at the Savoy, and Into the Woods in Regent’s Park.
But besides the winners and losers, the thing that most interested me was the re-invention of the awards ceremony itself. After years of the Oliviers punching way below their weight in terms of public profile, much had been made of their re-launch and the new media partnership with the BBC. As it turns out, the BBC’s shoddy, shambolic and bizarrely intermittent coverage on Radio 2 and via the red button service on TV was roundly condemned as a failure. I was stunned by the intensity of the negative reaction expressed online and on Twitter. But I was also very disappointed that the much trumped re-invention turned out to be such a missed opportunity.
The idea to re-launch the Oliviers first came about in reaction to the high profile of the TONY Awards in New York. Winning a TONY means a lot, not just to an individual actor, writer or director but to ongoing theatre productions, whose Box Office can be hugely boosted by significant wins. The TONY Awards are a big deal. And America makes a big deal of them.
Whereas here in the UK, over the last few years the profile of the Oliviers had been allowed to plunge to an all-time low. Yet we arguably have the best theatre anywhere in the world. Actually, I’m going to lose the “arguably” that sentence – we really do have the best theatre anywhere in the world. So it was great to hear that the Oliviers were going to be re-vamped and re-launched. And it was hugely disappointing to see the coverage so shoddily executed. Although with TV coverage limited to the red button service I suppose it was never going to be anything more than half-hearted.
So why aren’t we any good at blowing our own trumpet here in Britain? Why do we insist on continually downplaying our achievements while our American cousins are happy to shout theirs from the rooftops?
I’ve spoken to British actors who’ve gone to the States and had to quite literally learn how to brag about their work. It doesn’t come naturally to us Brits and our temptation is to mutter rather sheepishly about “a little TV series” we might have done or “some award” we won which was “no big deal”. Likewise, I’ve written letters of recommendation for friends who’ve gone to the US and applied for green cards. But my original letters were roundly rejected and had to be replaced with ones which gushed about my friends’ “incomparable talents”, “extraordinary charisma” and “reputation for excellence”. Without this level of enthusiasm, however sickening it might have felt to write it, those green cards just wouldn’t have materialised.
But during last night’s Oliviers I started thinking that there might a connection between our humility as Brits and our talent for making great theatre. In my view, great theatre can only arise out of sensitivity, a capacity for understanding and the kind of sensibility which seeks to communicate with a viewer or listener rather than just brashly barking at them. An in-built arrogance and blind self-confidence might lead to a certain showy theatricality but sensitivity and self-awareness give rise to the much more nuanced, layered and subtle drama for which we’ve become so celebrated around the world. So maybe when I’m regretting our inability to celebrate our own achievements I’m missing the point. Maybe it’s the very qualities which leave us unable to brag which also make us so adept at producing exceptional theatre. Legally Blonde is a case in point. The show was only a lukewarm success on Broadway but had to come to Britain, the home of irony, to really take off.
So yeah, the Americans might do awards ceremonies better than us – I’ll give them that. But our theatre is much, much better than theirs. And for me this is much more important.