MY WEEK (June 5, 2014): Tradition, innovation and surprises on TV screens

Swan Lake
Swan Lake

Recently, thanks to a couple of high quality shows at The Capitol, I’ve been thinking about productions and programmes that take advantage of our expectations.

If I was ordered to separate all the stage shows I’ve seen into two broad categories, I would probably label them ‘traditional’ and ‘innovative’.

Both forms of storytelling can be satisfying, but they offer viewers dramatically different kinds of pleasure. I’ll try to explain what I mean.

Last Wednesday (May 28), I went out to see Swan Lake (page 11), which was just wonderful. But, while I was watching it I thought: this is a story many people know, yet they keep going back to the theatre to see it. You get the same phenomenon with Shakespeare plays. I’ve seen several versions of Romeo and Juliet, but I’d watch it again if yet another version came to West Sussex. Why is this?

I think it’s about comfort. People enjoy seeing a show they’re familiar with precisely because they know what’s going to happen. Predictability can be nice and people can get enjoyment from viewing the little changes made to a familiar tale.

Innovative productions, on the other hand, offer a completely different kind of pleasure. They’re harder to watch, going against audience expectations until they reach an unforeseen conclusion. The joy in watching them comes from eventually understanding something that’s difficult to grasp or seeing a subject in a new light. The Devil at Midnight, which I saw last Friday (May 30), offered this kind of experience. The story was bewildering until the truly satisfying dénouement, which left new thoughts and arguments swirling around my head for hours afterwards.

As enjoyable as Swan Lake was, I think I like innovative shows more and this doesn’t just apply to live productions.

Game of Thrones’ fourth season has been absolutely cracking, completely defying people’s expectations. It’s always amusing to read fans’ comments and hear about their ‘frustration’ with various developments in the storyline. The latest episode’s brutal ending is going to wind some viewers through the roof (if they haven’t read the books), but I’m sure they love it, really, finding satisfaction in being tricked over and over again. Despite the recent eye-popping violence, I couldn’t help but laugh, because there are even more shocking surprises in store.

Fans might protest, but I don’t think they’re angry in any serious way. If they are, I recommend they go watch a nice ballet instead.