Why are people so pessimistic about ‘student theatre’?

MATILDA WNEK: ‘Student theatre’ is dogged with associations of pretension, vacuity, talentless posing and dull or overambitious interpretations of classic texts, much more fiercely than unprofessional versions of other art forms.

ADC Cambridge Arts Theatre green room matilda wnek Shakespeare Simon Haines taming of the shrew

It’s a question that faced me most assaultively during the interval of a particularly dreadful professional production of Anthony and Cleopatra over Christmas, having paid £40 for the privilege to sit there.

For some reason- perhaps because you can’t drink mulled wine at the cinema- a certain model of festivity has to incorporate extra theatre trips, so a lot of people will be back from a stellar programme of shows over the holidays. In theory, then, we ought to have returned with a rather dismal attitude to the prospect of eight weeks of the merely ‘student’ variety, blinking back to banality as our eyes strain to adjust from the dazzling brilliance of professional shows to the gloomy mires of am-dram. But, for this reviewer, the claim of disparity is about as credible as Keanu Reeves’ Don John.

‘Student theatre’ is dogged with associations of pretension, vacuity, talentless posing and dull or overambitious interpretations of classic texts, much more fiercely than unprofessional versions of other art forms. ‘Student writing’ sounds fresh and aspirational; ‘student art’ sounds progressive and cool; ‘student cinema’ isn’t even a phrase. The student thespian has to shake themselves free of clichés before every performance, and continually prove that what they’re doing is more than vanity.

Excepting performances of new writing, this pessimism feels counter-intuitive: no other student art form allows for collaboration with the greats of the canon – a performance of Shakespeare or Chekhov has pretty strong foundations, and a lot in common with its professional counterpart. One wonders how much worse it needs to be just because the production team are undergraduates.

Of course it’s true that a bad production of a classic text is its own special brand of torture; an evening of poorly acted Chekhov will really put a dent in your week, and there is nothing that awakens latent misanthropy like a self-indulgent Pinter production. The query is whether this is actually the necessary feature of student theatre it’s traditionally thought to be. Shit Shakespeare is shit Shakespeare, but there are many ways to murder a great text, and only some of those are the product of inexperience.

The aforementioned RSC Anthony and Cleopatra horror absolutely massacred the text. In an opening love sequence they put Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen and one of the most famous sexualised lovers in literature, in opaque tights. Fresh from steamy Egyptian sex with Anthony in a pair of M&S black nylons. Amazing.

The artistic gulf between professional and student production teams is always going to be marginal compared to the difference between either and the writers whose works are their common basis. I reckon this makes them equally liable to make mistakes that do injustice to that text. And if it’s the subtleties of genius you’re looking to be distilled out of the script we all know you’re better off reading it anyway, so it should be clear that it’s not the writers that productions should be measured against the standard of, but other performances.

Really? A love to fell an empire?

The idea that classic works should be the real preserve of actors or directors with the gravity of experience is as unfounded as it is annoying. While the texts can be majestic, nothing is greater injustice to their breadth and flexibility than reflexive contempt for amateur production, nor more irksome than watching actors like Keanu Reeves rev up to ‘take on the bard’ as part of their acting trajectory.  As bad an evening can be had at either, and I’ve got a lot of journalistic research to attest to that.

So perhaps those of you holiday theatre-enthusiasts who have observed the Lent line-up with a sense of especial dread might consider what £7 can buy you in term-time. You should be excited about the ETG production of The Taming of the Shrew in week one, and I personally am looking forward to Simon Haines’ new translation of Chekhov’s The Seagull at the ADC in week six. Oh and the production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Cambridge Arts Theatre in week two is bolstered by the credibility of professional director Carl Heap, if you want to manage the transition back to am-dram a little more gently.