"The Horton Connection"

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Tue, 14 Sep 2004 10:45:32 -0400
"Guardian article by author of 'Guantanamo' on NYC opening"

From: Geralyn Horton g.l.horton@mindspring.com
Subject: Guardian article by author of "Guantanamo" on NYC opening
Date: Tue, 14 Sep 2004 10:45:32 -0400

Lost for words

We don't always speak the same language, Gillian Slovo found, when transferring her controversial play about Guantánamo detainees to New York from London
Saturday September 11, 2004 The Guardian

When I set out, with Victoria Brittain, on a series of interviews with relatives of Guantánamo inmates, I knew the dimensions of our project. It was to involve, or so I thought, an intensive interview period followed by an even more intensive editing and structuring time, a set of rehearsals and a three-week run. In short, it was to be a creative project that would fill the gap between the publication of my recent book and the planning of my next, a challenging and essentially time-limited project.

Fascinating and challenging it certainly turned out to be, but as for its duration: well, I couldn't have got it more wrong. The three-week run at the Tricycle in north London was as predicted, but the intense attachment all of us - writers, directors, actors and backstage crews - felt towards the project defied expectation, as did the time we spent on it. Only now, more than six months after we began, are we beginning to emerge from our own kind of Guantánamo, that has taken us from Kilburn to the West End and then, across the ocean, to New York.

For a novelist who has not previously written for the theatre, New York did seem rather unbelievable, and, it has to be confessed, not a little frightening. This is a play, after all, that centres on British Asians or British Islamic converts, people who had all got caught up in the events that followed the obliteration of the Twin Towers. How would Americans deal with it?

The first surprise came in the auditions. There a succession of male actors (Guantánamo being an essentially masculine event) wowed us with their English accents. Only after a halfdozen of these 10 minute comings and goings did it dawn on me why it was so odd - although the accents they produced for our delectation, were indeed English, they were culled from an England circa 1950.

And not just any England. Over and over again, perfectly normal young Americans transformed themselves into a cross between Laurence Olivier and Noël Coward, and with each perfect articulated vowel came an attitude so frigid that it took us far into the deep deep-freeze. It was a passing problem - that is what dialogue coaches are for. And Nicolas Kent and Sacha Wares, the play's joint directors, had chosen their cast well. By the previews, the accents had entered the modern world.

As for the text, we had always known that the play contained culturally specific references that would puzzle Americans. Like the moment ex-detainee Jamil al-Harith talks about the fact that, in Guantánamo, he kept thinking that Jeremy Beadle would come round the corner; or the time that solicitor Greg Powell tells a policeman that his amateur fingerprinting technique is straight out of Blue Peter. Influenced by my teenage daughter's insistence that if we could cope with unexpected American words, then so New Yorkers should learn to cope with ours, I thought we could make them work: but the words stuck in American actors' gullets. They had to go.

And there were other, unexpected failures in our apparently shared language. There was the need to remove a reference to Manchester, for example, which in London had produced a big laugh. But the New York audience's stillness told us that most of them had no idea where (or perhaps even what) Manchester was.

Or take the mention of September 11. In the play, an Englishman who lost his sister in the Twin Towers talks about the fact that he doesn't call it "9/11" - he didn't refer to the month and the day in that order before, he says, so why should he now? In London the line was always met by a shock of recognition that was underlined by what I suspected was a collective English wish to resist the American way. It shouldn't therefore have surprised me that in New York, as early as the auditions, the confusion at these lines was unmistakable. The actors didn't actually say anything but we could tell that they just didn't understand what was being said.

We explained: in Britain, September 11 would in the normal course of things be described as 11/9. They accepted. But later the problem reasserted itself, this time among the backstage crew. We proffered the same explanation that had placated the actors. It didn't wash: if he doesn't want to call it 9/11, was the response, then he doesn't have to: we're not making him. It was a defensiveness that suggested that the only way they could take these lines was as criticism. And perhaps they were right: perhaps our English audience had seized this opportunity to get at them. In New York, the 9/11 lines went.

The Culture Project, where the play is being staged, paid for Mr Begg, father of British detainee Moazzam Begg, to come and campaign for the release of his son. Nightly he sat, dignified, as he watched a portrayal of his son going mad. But even his presence couldn't stop our opening night turning into pure Hollywood. Quite unlike the two London openings, when the Muslim community was especially invited, in New York there was a red carpet, and a string of photographers there to snap not Mr Begg, or the writers, directors, or even actors, but the celebrities in the audience. And there was the party, pre-eminently fashionable, over whose beginnings loomed the spectre of the coming New York Times review. Only when it had been downloaded, and seen to be good, could we partygoers know we were at a celebration and not a wake.

Next morning, when we got our hands on the actual paper, rather than the computer print-out, celebration turned to euphoria. It wasn't just that the New York Times liked the play, it was the amount of coverage it got: on half of the front page of the review section was one huge picture of our play.

That's all it took: the box office opened early. Guantánamo continues its run in New York while in London it has just closed. I went to see it again, here, before its end. I sat, listening to those familiar words, and reflecting that although on both sides of the ocean we have brilliant casts, the audience laughs more in London. In New York the atmosphere is subdued, verging, sometimes, on the stunned.

Perhaps the explanation for this lies in what an American friend told me. Watching the play, he said, he had realised that what he was hoping for was someone - a hero, a white knight - to save the detainees. But witnessing Moazzam Begg's stage deterioration, it dawned on my friend that there could be no such outcome. Perhaps his response is a common one: perhaps the silence that descended on the American audience that I was part of indicated that others wanted that same happy ending. So do we in Britain, of course, but perhaps here we live less in expectation of it.

Geralyn Horton, playwright
Newton, MA
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http://www.stagepage.info/monologs/_monologs.html Record year for National Theatre
Maev Kennedy, arts and heritage correspondent
Wednesday September 8, 2004
The Guardian

The National Theatre achieved a record 91% box office and a modest operating surplus last year, with audiences boosted by the £10 Travelex season.

The artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, described the annual report released yesterday as "a very cheerful document".

The chairman, Christopher Hogg, said it was the best result "in living memory".

Attendances were particularly striking because Mr Hytner, in his first year as artistic director, had won board approval to spend up to a £500,000 deficit - but made a £48,000 profit.

The experiment of using sponsorship to slash ticket prices for half the seats in the largest auditorium throughout the summer paid dividends.

Sceptics feared it would give regulars a cheap night out, but the season attracted 50,000 first timers. A third of those returned regularly, buying full-price tickets for other shows. Overall the National sold 750,000 tickets, an 11% rise on the previous year.

"The bolder we are, and the higher the road we take, the more our audience responds," Mr Hytner said.

The year included two hits, Jerry Springer the Opera and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, which will return this winter and is already selling out. Jerry Springer is having a successful run in the West End, but Mr Hytner, who directed His Dark Materials and had gruesome technical problems with previews, said: "Dark Materials, I can guarantee you, is untransferable."

The report only covers the year to last March, but signs are that the box office for the current season will be similar. But Mr Hytner said: "It would obviously be nuts of us ever to budget on 91% box office."

This season has produced the most talked about show, David Hare's Stuff Happens, and one surprise hit, Alan Bennett's The History Boys, whose much extended run is now packed out for every performance. It will tour nationally and internationally over the next two years.


National treasure
Thursday September 9, 2004
The Guardian

It is a familiar tale of the inability of arts management to stick to a budget. The National Theatre, under artistic director Nicholas Hytner, was granted a deficit of £500,000 for the past financial year. The National responded by playing to packed houses and general acclaim. As a result, it extravagantly declared a profit of nearly £50,000 for the year. It is balance sheets such as this that threaten to give arts administrators a good name.

The bald truth is, as Mr Hytner noted in the National's annual review: "Subsidy works." In the case of the National, it generated £23m in income, and received £14m in arts council grants. The subsidy allowed it the financial freedom to innovate and attract record box office sales. Part of this was the result of a string of hits, ranging from the irreverence of Jerry Springer - The Opera to the high drama of Michael Frayn's Democracy. But the other half of the equation was a decision to offer 150,000 tickets, sponsored by Travelex, at just £10 each. That spurred a rush of new visitors to the National, many of whom liked the experience so much that they came back for more and were willing to pay full price.

The National's success with £10 tickets reinforces a basic law of economics. As budget airlines found, passengers will fly to remote destinations if the price is right, so theatre-goers will fill the stalls. Yet theatres must reassure their audience that quality has not been discounted along with the ticket price, or risk suffering the fate of the Savoy Opera earlier this year. Unlike the Savoy - cheap in too many ways - the National kept its quality high, while producing exciting new works, such as Owen McCafferty's brilliant portrait of modern Belfast, Scenes From the Big Picture, or Kwame Kwei-Armah's Elmina's Kitchen.

There is a lesson here for arts administrators everywhere. In Dublin, where Mr Hytner's counterpart has just survived a vote of no-confidence, the Abbey is in crisis and laying off 30 staff. In the West End, a series of big productions have recently flopped. The Hytner principle, of making theatre attractive in every sense, is the script to follow.

Geralyn Horton, playwright
Newton, MA

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