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A few years ago the playwright David Hare spoke of “the fashionable whine of contempt” against the theatre. And it continues to this day. In sophisticated circles you never hear anyone boasting they cannot be bothered to open a book from one year’s end to the next, or that the very idea of visiting an exhibition brings them out in a rash. But a dislike of the theatre is worn like a badge of pride.

That fine journalist Lynn Barber once told me that she would rather watch a third-rate detective series on the telly than go to see a play; the distinguished literary editor David Sexton hates the theatre as vehemently as he loves Bob Dylan. Even the commissioning editor of this piece, Miriam Gross, initially asked me to write a “contrarian” piece suggesting the National Theatre isn’t as good as it’s cracked up to be. She seemed surprised when I said that the NT struck me as one of the few things in England of which it is possible to be unconditionally proud.

Why do so many smart, savvy folk despise the theatre? I have heard people boast that they much prefer reading Shakespeare’s plays to watching them, and that nothing would induce them to visit a smash-hit musical.

One reason, I think, is that they have a false assumption that the theatre is meant to do you good, a bit like going to church. And then there’s the sheer effort of getting there, and paying a hefty price for a ticket when you could be watching telly or a DVD in the comfort of your own home. My suspicion, however, is that many people find the whole idea of theatre simply embarrassing.

When theatre is bad it is excruciating. And whereas it’s easy to slip out of a film or exhibition, to walk out of a show in front of actors in mid-performance is a public statement requiring considerable nerve. Theatre also demands that we bring something of ourselves to the enterprise, rather than observing the proceedings with safe detachment — it has been well said that a theatre audience arrives as a group of individuals but leaves as a community. What those who despise the theatre really dislike, I suspect, is its generous democratic spirit and the constant risk that at any moment it could all go horribly wrong.


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