Yesterday, I wrote a piece in which I examined the frankly ridiculous price of West End tickets. This was in response to an article by director Jamie Lloyd, in which he placed part of the blame on star casting: ‘There are a lot of companies and producers out there who will… effectively exploit the profile of actors in a show by charging tickets that are soaring way past the £100 mark, which I think is outrageous’. But is this part of the problem and, if so, how can the industry change this?
According to Lloyd, big theatres seem to be bringing in big names for big productions to sell big amounts of tickets. But this is hardly new. I have a National Theatre programme from the 1970’s which featured John Gielgud, Arthur Lowe and Cyril Cusack to name but a few in a production of The Tempest. Even in Shakespeare’s day, Richard Burbage’s name carried a fair bit of weight. Hell, most of Lloyd’s productions over the last few years have been headlined by big names: Martin Freeman, James McAvoy and at the moment Kit Harrington. In these cases, I have no doubt it’s more a case of the right person for the right role, rather than casting a big name for the sake of pulling in the punters.
And why is star casting necessarily a bad thing? If you audition people and the best one happens to be a big name, what’s the harm in that? Some would argue it is a good thing. Big names mean bigger audiences and no doubt a proportion of those audience members may be newcomers to the play or even theatre itself. Case in point: Benedict Cumberbatch’s run as Hamlet prompted a whole host of people asking about the correct way of behaving in the theatre and others offering tips, even though the press preferred to focus on those less well behaved. We should always be encouraging new audiences to come to the theatre and Lloyd’s production of Doctor Faustus is introducing a whole new generation to Marlowe, myself included.
Where star casting becomes an issue though is price. While drafting this, I wrote the following sentence: ‘Arguably, you would expect the price to hitch up a bit with a big name attached to a production’. But why? Why are we indoctrinated to think that we should pay more money for a name? A name? What’s in a name?! Would you go to the cinema and see the latest Chris Pratt movie and expect to pay more? So why should the same be true for theatre?! And this seeming hitch in price in not just limited to big name actors; directors too carry a fair bit of ‘must see’ power, Lloyd included. Perhaps the best example of this is Kenneth Branagh’s season at the Garrick. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, starring Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon and Meera Syal and Richard Madden and Derek Jacobi. His current season is so star powered, if he was on Mario Kart he’d be blitzing through Rainbow Road!
So what should theatres do? Not announce casts until the run starts? And if so, where do we draw the line? Directors? Set designers? If so, the upcoming Old Vic season would read like this:
Adapted by: TBC.
Directed by: TBC.
As much as I like the play, I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t pull in the punters. Some theatres have tried doing this before, notably Almeida’s Greek season which I believe announced Ben Whishaw’s involvement after booking opened. But in some ways, the Almeida and other mainstream West End theatres can afford to do this. Smaller venues, less so. New, temporary venue Found111 started off it’s inaugural season with plays featuring well renowned actors Andrew Scott and James Norton. Would this space have sold out based on the play alone and without the star power? No. Again, another thing in favour of star casting: bringing new audiences to new plays off West End.
I started this piece asking how can the industry change the trend of star casting. Rather, it should be: should anything be done? Sure, star power casting has its downsides: productions which sell out in minutes, even though they are massively overpriced. But they also bring new audiences to the theatre, people who may have never read Hamlet, Doctor Faustus and Woyzeck otherwise. Again, it all comes down to price and how much both box offices and audiences value a name.