Monday 24 October 2016

Stage: Movie star in the house, but the play's the thing

Maggie Armstrong

Published 06/09/2015 | 02:30

Star power: Benedict Cumberbatch is currently playing Hamlet in the Barbican in London
Star power: Benedict Cumberbatch is currently playing Hamlet in the Barbican in London

Pierce Brosnan stretched out the window and exhaled his smoke. Your stage correspondent cosied up to him on the sofa. "What do you think of the show?" was the obvious thing to ask James Bond at the interval of Brian Friel's A Month in the Country at The Gate (which just ended: Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge opens next week).

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"Oh, it's wonderful," he breathed in a voice sent from Hollywood's Golden Age.

He said he had just been to The Abbey, too, to see The Shadow of a Gunman, and that it had also been wonderful. Now, it wasn't really fair to ask what he thought. He was sitting next to his chum, The Gate's director Michael Colgan, so he was hardly going to say the Friel show was terrible (and it was not). But these days, it's the celebrity endorsement that matters.

And to hear him say that it was wonderful felt good, all warm and fuzzy. Here was Pierce from Navan - in Dublin making a movie - bothering to spend his evenings gracing the theatre. It seemed radical, given how in trouble theatre is. A lot of people under 50 wouldn't think of forking out time and money to see a play. There are so many other ways of being entertained, so much Netflix and so many Bond movies. Theatre can look like a fairly austere affair compared with popcorn and cans of lager and permission to go to the bathroom.

But a movie star in the audience brings a whole new glow. He/she may genuinely enjoy theatre but they also bring their halo effect, their magnetism, their gust of fresh air and, hopefully, their social-media skills. (Pierce didn't take to his smartphone on this occasion, though he's been known to create a bidding frenzy at an art exhibition via Instagram).

Not to be too cynical, the presence of the 'sleb has become a key marketing tool. Theatres have extensive press lists these days that stretch to the most transient non-stars and to that dread prototype, 'influencers', people who can secure an infection of retweets across the web. What a celebrity says on Twitter has potentially more impact today than the word of the critic.

Celebrity casting is another ballgame. See how, when Benedict Cumberbatch was cast as Hamlet in the London's Barbican, the show sold out before it opened. Love/Hate's Peter Coonan is a lead in this next play at The Gate, and that name will mean a lot more to lots of people than the name Joe Dowling, the play's renowned director. Casting a biggie is the only way to hook people who ordinarily wouldn't go to the theatre, and get 'em while they're young.

But then you have that skewed motive: going to the theatre to see a movie star. It can be very annoying when an opening night becomes a honey pot. If you have ever been asked by a social photographer to kindly move away from a red carpet so they can snap a 1990s pop star or Rose of Tralee, you'll agree. You are here to see the show, and perhaps a little bit to be seen yourself, and if showbiz steals the show, you don't stand a chance of either.

There are sell-out shows like the hip-hop musical Hamilton in the Public Theatre in New York, which have earned their celebrity guest quotient - the Clintons, Michelle Obama, Francis McDormand, Madonna have all been - because they are judged by many experienced critics to be brilliant.

But the PR-driven flurry of fun at opening nights is usually misleading. I asked Patrick Lonergan, professor of Drama and Theatre Studies at NUI, Galway, his thoughts.

"The purpose of opening nights really is to market the show - through reviews, word of mouth, and the creation of a good buzz," he said.

To this end, a celebrity "giving his/her reputation" to a show is harmless - and as advantageous as an ad on the side of a bus. Though Patrick worries that if people go because the production has some celebrity cache and don't actually enjoy it, they will be unlikely to return to see a play.

The figure that shines brightest in the constellation of star theatre-goers is Gay Byrne. Patrick has just digitised the Abbey Archives with NUI Galway. He found in the Abbey press files over a 25-year period from the 1980s, 395 mentions of Gay Byrne and 433 of theatre critic Fintan O'Toole. In 1984 one Sunday Press journalist called it "Gaybo Power", this ability of Gaybo to influence the box office.

Patrick also found "fan letters" from both Bono and Christy Moore to Brian Friel after the premier of Dancing at Lughnasa, reminding us that before endorsements, there were private sentiments.

"Celebrities are there because they want to be there, not just to be seen", says Patrick.

Back to the honey pot. "And what is it you like about theatre, Pierce?' I asked, now holding a cigarette of my own.

"I started out on stage," he said with some nostalgia.

Did he feel envious of the performers, did he want to be up there?

"Oh no," he said, "I like making movies. That's my job. And long may it last."

Not the answer I was looking for.

A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller opens September 8 at The Gate.

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