A good long play

I was lucky enough to get a free ticket to see a dress rehearsal of Sam Mendes’s Richard III previewing at the Old Vic last weekend, as I’ve been doing a small project with their new writing programme. I was looking forward to it, though there were rumours going round that they were performing pretty much the full text. Let’s just establish that this is not something that one should approach lightly. It is Shakespeare’s second longest play (behind Hamlet), and what’s more, a lot of the text is taken up with useful but not utterly gripping details: who has got their troops over near Wales; who has formed an alliance with who; all of the complicated blood lines that connect the royal characters, etc.

When I got to the theatre, I was told that the play would run for three and a half hours. The situation was as grave as I had expected, and the fifteen minute interval would allow only enough time to beat my way through the crowd for a quick gulp of fresh air before fighting my way back to my seat. I heard others talking about the length with some trepidation, and one, glancing longingly down at their smartphone, mentioned leaving in the interval.

But we were wrong to moan, for two reasons. Firstly, it is a wonderful play and a wonderful production. When the lights went down and Kevin Spacey limped on stage, some audience members may have been tempted to shout out, ‘Keyser Söze!’ But Spacey is a brilliant theatre actor, with a limitless ability to make you sit up and pay attention—and that was what we did. He was the perfect Richard, charming, funny and cynical, his camaraderie with the audience only making his ruthlessness more chilling, because you found yourself willing him on. In fact, the whole cast were brilliant, on top of which, the set provided elegant, simple solutions to the text. The sound design was a little heavy-handed, and I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe in Gemma Jones’s old-bag-lady Margaret, cursing with bones and sand—I think words are probably enough—but it was a really engaging piece of entertainment.

Which brings me to the second reason it is wrong to worry about the length of the play. It’s this: there is actually nothing wrong with a long play. The idea that we as an audience might get bored after one hour of theatre has somehow taken hold, presumably on the basis that the internet is making us inattentive and computer games are making us egocentric and fast food is making us dizzy. This is not true. If I needed any proof of the general public’s ability to maintain interest, I might point out that most of my friends have watched whole DVD box sets in one sitting, and some are even prepared to sit through all 681 excruciating minutes of the Lord of the Rings films.

The worst thing is when a theatre company decides that Shakespeare didn’t know what he was doing and cuts random chunks out of a text. Richard III or Hamlet are not easy plays to stage, but it is the dramatist’s responsibility to find ways of making them engaging. It shouldn’t be a question of how much time you are taking out of a person’s day, but instead whether it feels worth it. If it is long, so what? The whole point of theatre is that it takes you out of the world for a little while.

Unless you’re planning on restaging Peter Brook’s nine-hour Mahabharata, then, the paradigm should not be whether you can chop a play down to suit a bored audience, but whether you might entertain them sufficiently that they want to come back after the interval to find out what happens. Theatre can be a vital, spontaneous kind of art, and patronising it by assuming that your audience must have come by mistake and must be held without interval, or that they might not understand some scenes in a Shakespeare play, doesn’t serve anyone’s best interests. The brave thing to do is what Sam Mendes has done, making concessions to clarity where necessary, but giving his audience the gift of the whole play in its rich, cruel splendour.