Now is a good time for a play that speaks to a privileged London audience about the lives of people in small rural towns.
A secret at the heart of one of London’s famous parks, hidden behind Madame Tussaud’s, the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre feels like an interesting space to stage Thornton Wilder’s Our Town – not just because it’s open to the sky and the trees, but because it’s an institution with an audience of white, middle-class, cultured Londoners. Mostly Remainers, probably. I’ll count myself in that – I remember going to the theatre here as a child.
So it’s a theatre in which the localism of Our Town, the small-town-ism of it, is an alien experience to a significant proportion of the audience, I reckon. Regent’s Park is very much a theatre of the capital city, even though – maybe because – it’s away from the traffic and bustle. Grover’s Corners is not our town.
Our Town has long had a reputation as a hokey, folksy, sentimental play – an easy one for schoolchildren, with its mild themes and large cast. It’s been produced so often and for so long, that – in the US, certainly – it’s become just part of the furniture, something that most adult Americans associate with the innocence and minor drama of high school, and haven’t really thought about since then.
But in 2009, David Cromer’s production, which came to the Almeida in 2014, was widely considered to have blown the dust off the cliches surrounding the play. The actors spoke in their own voices instead of old-timey New England accents; wore their own clothes instead of turn-of-the-century period costume; the house lights were kept on throughout. It felt contemporary again. In Our Town‘s post-Cromer era, Sarah Frankcom’s production at the Royal Exchange in 2017, just after the Manchester Arena bombing, spoke perfectly to a city holding itself together as a community in the aftermath of an enormous, collectively-felt tragedy.
In publicity interviews ahead of this production, Ellen McDougall has spoken about her interest in the timeliness of a revival of a play written in 1938. In the programme notes, she says that one of the things that she finds so extraordinary and important about Our Town is that, despite the fact that Wilder had witnessed at first-hand the rise of the far right and the march of fascism through Europe in the 1930s, the play is “underpinned by a deep love of humanity.”
But this is actually where her production falls down, I think. It’s too kind to its characters, the residents of Grover’s Corners. It’s too desperate to give us the idea of “humanity” as a good in the face of encroaching evil. And so it translates “humanity” into a simplistic notion of community, and then it has to portray a community – too naively – as a place where everybody cares for each other. The housewives help each other shell peas in the sunshine; and the soda-fountain man lets the kids off paying for the more expensive milkshake; and the milkman comes without fail, rain or shine. It falls back into the old trap of staging Grover’s Corners as a small town, once upon a time, where everybody was just so goshdarn nice to each other.
It feels like a real waste, because – although this was the first time I’d seen the play – I could hear the darkness already present in it, and see the production refusing to draw it out.
Between the first act, set in 1901, and the third act, set in 1913, the townsfolk start locking their doors. There are just a couple of references to this change, slipped in – but they signal the failure of the idea of goods held in common, and the spread of blind belief in the notion of private property. By 1913, the townsfolk drive Fords. Fordism – industrialized mass production, the foundational principle of twentieth-century global capitalism – has reached Grover’s Corners.
But there’s no acknowledgement of this in McDougall’s production, really. The characters’ characters are fixed, unchanging, too non-specific, too archetypal. And they’re fixed as nice nice nice, and charming, and sweet, and it’s sad when they die, but life goes on, because humanity is eternal and will outlast war and etc.
Except perhaps Simon Stimson, the Choirmaster, played here by Peter Hobday. He’s slight, straight-backed, with a well-groomed beard. Light-grey slim jeans and a pale jacket. When it rains, he opens an sky-blue umbrella with a stylized cartoon cloud pattern on it. I mean, (whisper it) I think he’s gay. He’s a gay man in a small town, and he’s also the town drunk. As Dr Gibbs says about him – and he’s the one character anyone suggests this about – “Some people ain’t made for small-town-life.” He stumbles around the town late at night, avoiding his wife, and the townsfolk look the other way. What can we do about it? they ask, half-heartedly. And they decide to just… not notice it. And by the third act, he’s hanged himself in his attic and the epitaph on his gravestone is a line of music that no-one can read. That’s dark. And it’s a darkness that’s pretty specific to small town life. There’s a history and a reason for the stereotypes of metropolitan queers.
I think the production needed to bring out more of this. Just as it’s unhelpful, in Brexit Britain, to portray people living in small towns as insular, bigoted, white, racist, ignorant, just as it’s as unhelpful to ignore them, it’s also unhelpful to portray them as idyllically innocent.
Well-off London audiences are in need of plays that ask us to think about others, beyond our walls, beyond the inner circle of our central parks. And those plays need to show us something true, which means something complex and difficult. It’s nice, sure, to dream of a play about the beauty of unity in divisive, individualistic times, and I understand McDougall’s political commitment to those ideals – but I don’t think Our Town is quite the right play for that at the moment. To make a utopian production, in which Grover’s Corners is a place without pain, is a mistake.
Our Town can demand that we take a long hard look at ourselves. I think it has to, here, now.
It’s nice, but too literal, to try and show the audience ourselves by having a diverse cast, as McDougall’s production does. Especially when there are probably more people of colour onstage than in the audience.
It’s nice, but too literal, to try and show the audience ourselves by interpreting Wilder’s bare stage as a raked bank of chairs like the ones we’re sitting on, in Rosie Elnile’s design. (As a side-note, this doesn’t even quite work, because the chairs are distractingly a bit different to ours.)
It’s nice, but pointless, to have the Stage Manager played by a woman (Laura Rogers), if she only occasionally calls attention to the gender politics of the town – and if it’s not clear what the Stage Manager is doing, or what she thinks she’s doing, to us, or to the townsfolk.
I want an Our Town at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2019 that says
Look at yourself.
Look at what you’re complicit in.
Look at what you let happen because you weren’t paying attention.
Look at who you’ve let down – let die – because you chose not to notice them.
Look at the mess you’ve made of the world beyond yourselves.