Traditionally the theatre has been one of the brightest jewels in Britain’s cultural crown. These days it is noticeably lacklustre. Serious theatre, at least, is a regular disappointment; light West End plays and musicals still give satisfaction to those whose tastes lie that way, but mainstream theatre is often hardly worth the journey or the expensive tickets. For years now, three or four out of every five plays I have seen (excluding Shakespeare productions) have been unimpressive, even poor — particularly among new plays.
Of course there are exceptions. War Horse at the National was mesmerising; the child-like story of a boy in the First World War looking for his conscripted horse on the battlefields of France was the emotional background for an astonishing theatrical experience, created by huge wooden horse puppets manipulated by actors in black. It was surprising, moving and magical — and technically astonishing — in the way only live theatre can be.
But generally it is this extreme theatrical experience — such stuff as dreams are made on — that is now missing in even the most competent productions. It is more often found in opera productions these days. For instance, the late Anthony Minghella’s dazzling direction of Madama Butterfly at ENO in 2005 was infinitely more inspired than almost anything I have seen in the spoken theatre for several years.