The Thrill of the Old

Jo Caird speaks to Simon Callow about Fringe theatre, and whether or not old can still be good

feature | Read in About 6 minutes
Published 06 August 2010

This year, Simon Callow, one of the UK’s most respected actors, brings his new one-man show, Shakespeare: The Man from Stratford, to the Fringe. This run, a culmination of a three-month national tour, follows his hugely successful 2008 production, Simon Callow: A Festival Dickens, another one-man show with a canonical writer at its centre.

It seems unlikely, given Callow’s reputation, as well as that of the show’s writer, acclaimed Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate, that The Man from Stratford will have any trouble getting bums on seats this August. But is this because of a true appetite for classic work among Fringe audiences, or are the punters simply attracted by the idea of seeing the a recognisable face from Four Weddings and a Funeral and Shakespeare in Love up close and personal? Is there still a place for traditional theatre at the Fringe?

“The Fringe,” says Callow, speaking via phone the morning after his first, sold-out performance of The Man from Stratford’s UK tour, “can be whatever you want it to be. That is what characterises the Fringe more than anything else: the diversity.” Unsurprisingly, he also believes strongly that the festival is a place for canonical work; it does depend, however, on how it’s done.

“Working on the Fringe with the budgets that [the majority of companies] have, you can’t possibly have an RSC-style production of King John. But they’ve got to use their imagination to do it in some other way, and that’s when it gets interesting. We’ve got to find our way round this, by doubling, trebling, quadrupling; we’ve got to find a kind of physical language that will make the play work, and so on. Some of the most exciting productions ever in the history of the theatre have been of those [classic] plays”.

Andy Field is co-director of Forest Fringe, the micro-festival phenomenon that has been steadily gaining momentum since it first appeared in Edinburgh four years ago. The shows that find a home at Forest Fringe are experimental, experiential and often downright strange, a world away from Callow doing Shakespeare at Assembly Hall. Field admits that he won’t be racing to see The Man from Stratford, and has no interest in pursuing such work himself in terms of programming, but recognises that there is place for traditional theatre at the Fringe, at least in the minds of audiences.

“You look at a company like Belt Up Theatre: they’ve done things like The Misanthrope and Kafka’s The Trial and generated a really big audience for themselves. In part it’s because they’re doing this nominally innovative staging, but there’s obviously an appetite for seeing those classics in some kind of different light. Being able to see the collision of someone like Simon Callow and a very familiar play charms in the same way that seeing the collision of The Duchess of Malfi and Punchdrunk challenges and excites people”.

Veteran Fringe director, producer and performer, Guy Masterson, has brought dozens of successful shows to the Fringe, including enduring hits, Under Milk Wood and Animal Farm. For him, “marketing titles” that sell tickets via “brand recognition” are an important part of the festival experience. “Title is very important. Classic titles always sell more tickets than non-classic titles…With Shakespeare, you can’t really go wrong. You know it’s going to be a good story”.

Part of the reason such shows sell so well, explains Andy Jordan, another hugely experienced Fringe director and producer, is that “there are lots of people who think, ‘I’ve never seen that play by Peter Schaffer; I’ve never seen that play by Noel Coward. Here’s an opportunity to see it.’” For many festival-goers, the Fringe is a convenient and inexpensive opportunity to see the great plays of the canon.

But the label of “marketing title” isn’t just applicable to the work, of course. Simon Callow’s name has huge marketing value in itself. As Masterson says, “Simon Callow has done enough memorable roles in movies for the general public to recognise him. People won’t have problems parting with their cash.”

I put this to the man himself and he acknowledges—albeit rather begrudgingly and in a somewhat back-to-front manner—that this is the case: “Clearly if you don’t like me, you’re not likely to come and see me in a one-man show.” Callow is under no illusions as to his popularity.

In a climate where the vast majority of Fringe shows lose money hand over fist, even when they’ve attracted healthy audiences over the course of a run, it’s tempting to condemn shows such as The Man from Stratford for their pragmatic—some might say cynical—approach in choosing classic work with a mass appeal.

Andy Field, however, is quick to defend the role of this type of show. The Forest Fringe, he explains, “wouldn’t exist if the Simon Callows of this world didn’t come for the festival. It’s the people who go to the festival because they want to see Simon Callow or Les Dennis, or whatever other ageing celebrity is there, who then decide to take a risk on coming to Forest Fringe and have their minds blown – they’re really important to us. Otherwise we would just have the same 19 well-informed, young hipsters come and watch our shows, and that’s not of very much interest.”

For many visitors to the Fringe, including the critical establishment and the judges of prizes such as the Fringe First and the Total Theatre Awards, traditional shows barely register on the radar, and that is, perhaps, as it should be: after all, the festival is a place for experimentation, innovation and risk, and has launched the careers of many of this country’s most respected theatre-makers.

But for an equally large number of Fringe-goers, classic work provides a safe, familiar and relatively inexpensive route into a world of theatre that is almost boundless in its diversity. Whether is it Simon Callow, William Shakespeare or Harold Pinter acting as a draw for these audiences is, in the end, irrelevant. The fact that they are getting drawn in at all is surely what counts.