The Play's the thing

Be it on the pitch or on the stage, performance is king and the passion it arouses is key to why Dominic Shellard loves the theatre - and football

August 5, 2010

"Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed?

The very faculties of eyes and ears."

- Hamlet

I love performance. It is probably why I served as a councillor in Rotherham at the end of the 1990s, possibly why I enjoy lecturing so much and certainly why I have been a supporter of Queens Park Rangers Football Club since 1973 (and a home-and-away season-ticket holder for the past 10 years).

But performance is most integral to the theatre, and that is my enduring passion. When I was at primary school, I remember a particularly inspiring teacher telling our indifferent class of nine-year-olds why the Puritans despised the theatre in Reformation times. "They objected to acting because to take on the role of another person was sinful, since only God could create unique personalities," Mrs Walters revealed. I doubt I understood the essence of this but I can remember clearly thinking how miserable the Puritans must have been, especially as I had recently so enjoyed playing the role of a prince in the headmaster's (probably ghastly) adaptation of The Wizard of Oz.

Since then, I have always supported the notion that theatre is not just a way of being supremely entertained (both as a performer and as an audience member), but is intellectually challenging, essential to a healthy democratic society - in that it provokes thought and stimulates debate - and fundamentally life-affirming.

Secondary school and university were a whirl of rugby and football (more performance) and theatrical productions, and it was probably inevitable that after I discovered that my unique PhD topic - "The effect of Bertolt Brecht on postwar British theatre" - had actually been covered by more than 500 theses, I grabbed at the suggestion of my supervisor, Francis Warner, to complete a doctorate on "The Theatre Criticism of Harold Hobson" in 1993.

I have to confess that apart from the fact that he had been the chief theatre critic of The Sunday Times between 1947 and 1976, I barely knew who Hobson was when I started to study him. But I soon discovered a surprising empathy with this gentle Christian Scientist, who was often mocked for his religious sensibility and idiosyncratic reviews, because he wrote with such gentle passion and made the process of going to the theatre sound so exciting.

His most famous reviews were of Waiting for Godot ("something that will securely lodge in your mind for as long as you live") and The Birthday Party, which is now recognised as having saved Harold Pinter's career from being strangled at birth, such was the vituperative reaction of his fellow critics in 1958. But my favourite notice of his is of Sir Laurence Olivier's uneven but often breathtaking performance of Macbeth in 1955:

"His performance reminds one of the insolent magnificence of that Sunderland football 'team of all talents' which, in the season before the First World War, stayed at the bottom of the league all through September, and the following April finished at the top with a record number of points. For, it must be admitted, the opening scenes of Sir Laurence's Macbeth are bad; bad with the confident badness of the master who knows that he has miracles to come."

Books on postwar theatre, Kenneth Tynan and theatre censorship have followed, as well as the British Library Theatre Archive Project (www.bl.uk/theatrearchive), which I lead with the inspirational head of modern literary manuscripts at the British Library, Jamie Andrews. But my epiphany, my alpha-and-omega moment, came in 2007, when, as last man standing, I was invited to chair the board of Sheffield Theatres Trust, which runs not one, but three, theatres - the thrust-stage Crucible, its smaller 450-seat Studio and the magnificent Victorian proscenium-arch Lyceum. Only becoming manager of QPR or vice-chancellor of De Montfort University could surpass this.

I say "last man standing" because there was literally no one left on the board with as much service as me when the second chairman in three months departed - a grand total of two and a bit years. My colleagues gave me a gentle grilling, I confirmed that I knew the difference between stage left and stage right and a game of snooker (more anon), and I was in.

It is hard to set down the thrill of being responsible, with my fellow trustees, for overseeing the strategic direction of this extraordinary organisation during the past three years. But we were immediately confronted with the need to take some urgent decisions. The famous Crucible thrust stage, which had been designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch and opened in 1971, was so decrepit that it was getting stuck every time it was lowered, and urgent attention was required to the backstage, front of house and box-office areas. We therefore sanctioned a £15.3 million redevelopment programme, with generous funding from Yorkshire Forward (£6 million), Arts Council England (£4 million), Sheffield City Council (£2.5 million) and the European Regional Development Fund under Objective One (£2.3 million).

The money would be invested in the following ways: replacing out-of-date theatre technical equipment and stage; installing green environmental technology in both auditoriums; reducing maintenance costs to allow money to be transferred into the productions; ensuring accessibility to all areas for the less able-bodied, for example installing a lift and handrails in the auditorium; and complying with health and safety regulations - for if we did not invest in these improvements for our colleagues and customers it was getting to a point where the Crucible would be at risk of closure.

But the sense of satisfaction in facilitating this much-needed renovation of an old friend was tempered by the knowledge that this would mean that there would not be any productions on the main Crucible stage for almost two years up to February 2010.

There was one show that had to go on at all costs, though, even if this meant twice delaying the redevelopment work at great expense. The Snooker World Championships have become synonymous with Sheffield since they first were held at the Crucible in 1977. At a time when there was some talk of their being relocated to China, given the sport's popularity in the Far East, it was imperative that we did not give the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association the opportunity to permanently relocate the tournament. So the works were designed to be paused in spring 2008 and spring 2009 to allow the competition to take place.

Sitting in the auditorium last year on the late May bank holiday Monday for the final between John Higgins and Shaun Murphy, I was surprised at how gripping the spectacle of live snooker could be. There is something paradoxical about watching a gladiatorial struggle taking place between two men in bow ties and waistcoats, but the intensity of their supporters, obediently respecting the referee's instruction to be quiet only to erupt when a particularly tricky red is sunk, is strangely gripping.

As the months progressed on the redevelopment, a new front entrance, roof and function room emerged - and the slightly less welcome news that the Crucible had been Grade-II listed - and we put together the consummate team of Dan Bates, as the new chief executive, and Daniel Evans, as the artistic director. Evans told us in July 2009 that the reopening production would be Christopher Hampton's adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People with Antony Sher in the main role of Dr Stockmann, which drew gasps from the board.

It was a suitably bold choice - sonorous, classical, slightly risky - and had me diving for the script. It also was a highly political play, centring on the battle between Stockmann, who had discovered that his town's new baths were using water polluted by waste from the tanneries on the outskirts, and his brother, the mayor, who fashioned a cover-up to prevent a financial catastrophe for the local businessmen. Ibsen had written the play in 1882 in the red heat of anger at the way the critics, bowing to external pressure, had lacerated his previous play, Ghosts, for employing the metaphor of hereditary syphilis to examine the redundant concept of original sin. I was not the only trustee who agreed with Evans that there was a certain resonance with our own preoccupation with MPs' expenses.

The opening night finally arrived on 16 February 2010. I had deliberately shut myself off from an examination of the set, a discussion about the performers and an explanation of Evans' directorial take. I wanted to experience this momentous reopening show from the perspective of the theatre devotee who has been deprived for too long of the thrill of live performance in his local theatre.

As I climbed the main staircase to the new foyer space, I knew all the facts. The Crucible is the first theatre in the country to receive a high standard on the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment. It is now the greenest theatre in the UK, with, for example, the change from tungsten lights to LEDs in the auditorium cutting the yearly carbon-dioxide emissions by 17 tonnes. It had a brand new thrust stage, a new rehearsal room, new and upgraded dressing rooms, and new seats with higher backs for more comfort. Access improvements included more wheelchair spaces added to the auditorium, a new lift serving all levels, and a new ramp into the bar area. There was extensive use of recycled materials in the building and they were also used as decorative items - from the integration of old £10 notes in the box-office counter to wellington boots in the washroom tilings. And the ladies' toilets had increased in number from 20 to 31.

But I didn't want facts. I wanted emotions. And how I got them. Towards the end of the play, an increasingly embattled Stockmann decides to address a community meeting to explain to his fellow citizens why the baths need to be closed for repairs. Evans, reflecting the Crucible's tradition of community productions, engaged an army of local Sheffield citizens to charge on to the stage and act as a "community chorus", which at times supports Stockmann and at others goads and taunts him. It was one of the most gripping things I have ever witnessed. The secretion of the chorus throughout the audience, their visceral proximity to our seats, their brutish interruptions and occasional support of his position, the argument and counter-argument, and the palpable skill and enthusiasm of the non-professional actors were the very embodiment of Shakespeare's "fickle mob". It was quite terrifying. Some local worthies found this breaking of the fourth wall to be disconcerting - as it was indeed intended to be - and Michael Billington, The Guardian's critic, moaned that the chorus obscured his view, but I found this superbly choreographed 15 minutes to be intensely exciting, emotionally engaging and deeply disturbing.

My favourite theatre critic, Tynan, wrote the following paean to Olivier's historic performance as Oedipus in 1945: "I know that from the first I was waiting breathlessly for the time when the rack would move him into the final notch, and the lyric cry would be released: but I never hoped for so vast an anguish. Olivier's final 'Oh! Oh!' when the full catalogue of his sins is unfolded must still be resounding in some high recess of the New Theatre's dome: some stick of wood must still, I feel, be throbbing from it."

When I left the Crucible that night, I was sure that I could sense that stick of wood, too. And that is why going to the theatre has the potential to be such an extraordinary experience.

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