Last week, Josie Rourke’s production of Much Ado About Nothing began previews at Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End. The main draw of the production, and the thrust of its advertising campaign, is that Shakespeare’s famous feuding lovers are played by TV stars David Tennant and Catherine Tate. As this show opens, Neil LaBute’s In A Forest Dark And Deep approaches the end of its run, having excited audiences and enjoyed a successful box office thanks to its star turn from TV’s Matthew Fox.
James Corden, Oliver Chris, Katherine Parkinson, Reece Shearsmith, Sarah Lancashire, Sienna Miller, Benedict Cumberbatch: TV celebrities are currently treading the boards of London stages. Of course, it’s understandable to rely on famous faces to sell a show during recession, but it’s also a tendency that results in less jobs for established stage actors who aren’t household names.
The cross over from film to stage is reflected all over the West End, and not just by the actors. A number of successful films are being retold behind Proscenium Arches up and down Shaftesbury Avenue, filling the theatres with blockbuster titles. The most recent of these is Shrek, currently previewing at Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The show, co-produced by Neal Street and Dreamworks, is a fun-packed, fast-paced production with some fantastic character performers and inventive, witty staging – but it doesn’t quite live up to the original film as a medium of story telling.
Conversely, across the road, The Lion King is still big box office – a commercial and critical success because it does its own thing with the story of the film, reinventing the tale for the theatrical medium, and creating, live on stage, a representation of the world of the story in a way the film never could. Down the road (briefly) was The Shawshank Redemption: a literal, straight forward translation of the film on stage. It didn’t last long, probably because you could see it all on screen for £3 from HMV. The Exorcist is the latest film to be rumoured for stage transfer on Broadway – hopefully the production team will learn something from The Lion King, or, closer to home, Ghost Stories – a fantastic example of the cinematic horror tradition translated and re-imagined for stage.
And of course, it works in reverse too: musical theatre regularly lends itself to cinematic translation, a medium that allows a director to realise the large scale ambitions that musical theatre often aims for. Chicago, Nine and Annie have all been given the treatment by Rob Marshall, exploring the stories on a grand scale and with star names. In 2004, Joel Schumacher adapted Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, and in 2010, Cameron Mackintosh announced the forthcoming movie version of Les Miserables. Both these long running musicals have already been adapted into a number of films. The reason they can survive multiple adaptations is often the strength of the story at the heart – the legendary tale of an opera ghost, or the epic history of French Revolution. They make good musicals, plays or films because they’re simply good stories that can be retold in a number of ways. Perhaps the same can be said for the success of David Tennant, Catherine Tate, et al: the reason they are successful, why they will draw audiences to the theatre and why their faces will sell a show, is because they’re bloody good at what they do.
Ed’s note: Star names are not new, but has this practice become more prevalent recently? What do you think? Would you go and see a play just because it had your favourite star in it? Join the debate by commenting below.