Review: Masterpieces, Royal Court Surprise Theatre via YouTube

“Looking at pictures never hurt anyone”

Alongside the Weekly Rep season, another of the major innovations at the Royal Court as part of their Open Court summer is the notion of Surprise Theatre. Here, the upstairs space has been taken over on Mondays and Tuesdays and tickets sold without any information being given about what is to be performed. An ambitious move to be sure but one which clearly paid off as the run soon sold out – but even with the assurance of a quality programme, I have to admit to not being willing to take the risk. I like to be able to have the choice of how I spend my money and my time.

Perhaps with an eye on this, or just acknowledging the limited number of tickets for the smaller theatre there, many of the pieces of theatre have been made available on their YouTube channel – the performances themselves filmed from a standing camera, and allowing many more people to experience the surprise. A good thing, one may think, but having watched one of them – the performance of Sarah Daniels’ 1983 polemic against pornography Masterpieces – I’m not 100% sure it is the most successful of enterprises.

Not unreasonably, it takes the form of a semi-staged reading – I imagine Tim Hoare’s production was pulled together in extraordinarily quick time – and with actors of this calibre, it works. Stella Gonet, Lauren O’Neil and Laura Rogers, Harry Hadden-Paton, Geoffrey Streatfeild and Nick Fletcher, this is an incredible list of names to get involved in a one night only thing and demonstrates the pull that the Royal Court has, and looks likely to continue with, in the theatre landscape in London.

But the necessarily ramshackle nature of the set-up, especially with the filming being done from a static camera placed near the back, lends a blurry home video feel to the whole affair. I’d go so far as to say that you’re better off treating it as a radio production and just listening to it as very little is really effectively portrayed visually on this recording. It does  make for a satisfying aural experience though – Gonet and Hadden-Paton have particularly sonorous voices, and Rogers and Streatfeild also fare well with their forceful characters.

I suppose the other issue for me was with the play itself. Masterpieces is a powerfully uncompromising play on the ills of pornography, detailing its corrosive nature on the very fabric of society itself by exploring different scenarios in which a relationship with pornographic material has brought about some kind of wrong. It’s a bold argument but one which allows for little nuance in the debate and so its impact feels kind of muted, it rants rather than challenges.

Maybe that is just how loud the playwright had to shout to be heard back in the early 80s and we’ve moved on a bit now, maybe its because I’m a man, maybe its just my own attitudes towards porn. But in making so much of Masterpieces so extreme, it feels that the importance of its message is lessened somehow and one could be tempted to take it less seriously which is terrible I know, but I’m just being honest.

So a mixed bag in the experience of it all, but I am grateful indeed for the opportunity to have seen any of it all and I’m still going to watch a few more of the filmed performances to see if I fare better with any of those.


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