Is it just us, or is there something intrinsically unsatisfying about awards? Of course it’s nice to see your favourite performers getting some recognition, but most of the time, awards seem to perpetuate a system which is already unfair. Unless you are originating a role for the first time, for example, you have no chance of winning an Olivier Award, however good you might be – hence a performer such as John Owen-Jones, who has built his career on taking over roles (and sometimes improving on the original) has perhaps received less recognition than he deserves. And then we have the rather ridiculous outcome of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller (henceforth to be known as Millerbatch) having to share the Evening Standard best actor award because they happened to share the same roles in ‘Frankenstein’. Surely two actors playing the same role is exactly the time when awards should make a judgement about who was ‘better’. Why have a competition if you’re not going to follow through?
If you needed any proof that awards can sometimes be cruelly unjust you only need to look at Peter O’Toole’s oscar record – nominated seven times and never a winner, except for a specially organised ‘honorary’ award which some might say is just adding insult to injury.
Theatre awards have an added problem – theatre is ephemeral. Even with archived screenings available (click here for forthcoming screenings at the V & A), nobody expects to judge a show without seeing it ‘in the flesh’. Once a show has closed, there is no further access to it, and if a performer is unlucky enough to be brilliant in a show which closes early or gets a small audience, their bad luck is compounded. And unlike film, the potential audience is limited. Generally, organisers of awards will try to anticipate which shows should be in the running, hence the Oliviers have a panel of judges, and encourage members of the public to apply, on condition that they agree to see approximately 100 shows in the 12 month judging period.
The whatsonstage awards have a very different, and on the face of it, more democratic approach. Voting is done entirely by the public, and people are free to vote in whichever categories they choose, regardless of whether they have seen any of the other shows. You only have to look at the list of shows from which people can nominate to see the impossibility of the average theatre-goer seeing even a substantial minority of the shows. And then there is the inevitable imbalance when you consider potential audiences for each show. Let’s take the ‘best revival’ category, which contains the Southwark Playhouse revival of ‘Parade’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz’ at the Palladium. The Southwark Playhouse has a capacity of 150 – the Palladium 2298. Parade ran for 40 days – The Wizard of Oz is still running. If we try to calculate potential audiences and assume Parade ran for 8 shows per week and was sold out we get a grand total of approximately 6000. If we assume 65% capacity for the Palladium with around 300 performances we get nearly 450,000. That’s 75 audience members for every person who saw Parade. Suddenly the Wizard’s ‘success’ (40% of the vote as of early January) in that category is not quite so impressive.
Then we have nominations which seem to only narrowly fit the categories they are in. How can the ‘re-union’ of David Tennant and Catherine Tate for ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ be a ‘theatrical event’, when the relationship was forged through a TV programme. It seems a shame that a production which received quite a lot of praise on its own terms, with two talented leads, is to be judged on the basis of casting which has nothing to do with theatre.
Then we have the ‘Stage 100’ list . The status of the list seems unclear. The introduction in the Stage (5th January 20120 edition) describes it as “a lowdown of the theatre industry figures who have proved to be the key players over the last 12 months.” Later, they are referred to as ‘the heroes of our industry’. But essentially it is power and influence which seems to be celebrated, with the Ambassador Theatre Group coming top of the list, as ‘the UK’s biggest theatre operator, by quite some number’. Hardly a surprise there then. Bizarrely, The Stage carried a ‘news’ article reporting that ‘ATG’s Panter and Squire complete Stage 100 hat-trick’ in the Stage 100 as though this is something to be celebrated. There is no discussion as to whether the ‘influence’ exerted by some of the people who appear in the 100 is benign. And whilst the introductory article comments on the lack of women and smaller companies, are they not simply perpetuating this situation by focussing on people who need no help in the search for publicity?
As a Guardian article has already pointed out, these rankings seem more about the past than the future, and this is no better illustrated than with the equal fourth ranking of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh. Lloyd Webber is now very firmly focussed on maximising the revenue from his existing body of work and whilst at least Mackintosh brought us something new this year, his palpable shock at the ‘short’ run of Betty Blue Eyes revealed that perhaps he has forgotten that mega-hits such as Les Miserables are the exception rather than the rule. Betty Blue Eyes was his first new work in 10 years, which makes one wonder why he came 5th last year.
And to top it all, one of the entrants in the ‘Stage 100’ is Julian Bird, not really a producer at all, but there on the strength of his role in producing………The Olivier Awards. The worm ourobos is complete. If you want to get noticed, have an awards show!