There's life beyond the Oliviers

It's time theatre awards recognised the provinces.

On Sunday, the winners of the Oliviers, "British theatre's most sought after awards" were announced. In an effort to Oscar-cise and Tony-vate the event, organisers even brought on the big show-guns like Angela Lansbury and, er, Barry Manilow. But if the desired glitz was a little undermined by the line-up, it was sunk entirely by the clownish BBC coverage. An over-heated Jodie Prenger ran divertingly amok on the red carpet, but far worse was inflicted on us by the editing: we were denied Nancy Carroll's acceptance speech (for best actress in After the Dance) in favour of an interview with Gok Wan, who hadn't seen any of the shows, but who knows a thing or two about man-scarves.

Responsible for the Larrys and their US-style showbiz revamp is The Society of London Theatre (Solt). Despite the rhetoric, and public perception, "Britain's" most prestigious awards are nothing of the kind: they are London's awards. And covering less than half of London venues at that: Solt members and affiliates only. The small-scale and non-building based - everything outside "Theatreland" - is all but ignored.

The judges are "industry professionals" appointed by Solt, and members of the public, who are vetted by Solt. It puts me in mind of Jean Luc Godard's rebuke to Truffaut: "You say films are trains that pass in the night, but who takes the train, in which class, and who is driving it with a management snitch at his side?" In this case, it is broadly clear who is driving the train, and pouring themselves a big congratulatory glass of Bolly at the same time - though specifics of the professional judges' interest and connection with the shows, if any, are far from transparent.

As far as the Oliviers are concerned, the provinces don't exist. Which is ironic, considering the cogent plea for spending cuts clemency in the regions made by luminaries like Helen Mirren, Mike Leigh and Kenneth Brannagh in the Observer this weekend (part of actors' union Equity's wider campaign). The RSC's smash-hit musical Matilda will only be eligible for nomination if and when it transfers to the West End.

London is pretty well loved-up between the Oliviers and the Off-West End awards (or "Offies"), though there is a confusing intersection: Blasted at the Lyric Hammersmith won both an Olivier and an Offie. There are a further three lots of capital-centric accolades I can think of. But apart from the odd bone, in the regions it's still a case of here be dragons.

But the West End is neither synonymous with, nor the "best of," British theatre. Lee Ross was nominated for best supporting actor in Birdsong, and whilst he deserved gongs aplenty, as far as I'm concerned, for supporting the entire rickety play, I infinitely preferred his performance in Marine Parade at the Brighton Festival. It's as if a theatrical experience here is somehow lesser than one on Shaftesbury Avenue; the desired trajectory for an actor or a play is a Dick Whittington one: to move from "the provinces" to the capital. Even the rallying call for funding in the regions cites their role as a training ground for greater, metropolitan things, rather than a legitimate end in itself.

Solt, and its awards to itself, do at least straddle the subsidised and commercial sectors: the Royal Court and the National were big winners on Sunday. Without subsidy Theatreland would be even more risk averse (there'd be no Clybourne Park), and we'd end up with the merry-go-round of musicals that is Broadway. And thankfully there is still room for the odd David to rise through the ranks and slap the Goliaths: Best New Opera went to OperaUpClose's production of La Bohème, which started life at the 35-seat Cock Tavern before transferring to the Soho Theatre. Personally gratifying, also, to see the fragrant Sheridan Smith and Legally Blonde snatch trophies from the Phantom sequel "The Franchise Never Dies".

But, based on an eclectic consumption of theatre around the country this year, I'm not sure I could decide on the relative value of a performance given in a shed in Bath, say, over the rococo excesses of Drury Lane. Some of the most startling shows I have seen have been many, many miles from London. Perhaps we should inaugurate a truly national award, equal to the Oliviers in prestige, that celebrates our regional centres and our caravanserais of nomadic performers: the Noliviers? And the nominations are...?

Pompidou Centre
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Harry Styles: What can three blank Instagram posts tell us about music promotion?

Do the One Direction star’s latest posts tell us about the future of music promotion in the social media age - or take us back to a bygone era?

Yesterday, Harry Styles posted three identical, captionless blank images to Instagram. He offered no explanation on any other social network, and left no clue via location serves or tagged accounts as to what the pictures might mean. There was nothing about any of the individual images that suggested they might have significance beyond their surface existence.

And, predictably, they brought in over a million likes – and thousands of Styles fans decoding them with the forensic dedication of the cast of Silent Witness.

Of course, the Instagrams are deliberately provocative in their vagueness. They reminded me of Robert Rauschenberg’s three-panelled White Painting (1951), or Robert Ryman’s Untitled, three square blank canvases that hang in the Pompidou Centre. The composer John Cage claimed that the significance of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings lay in their status as receptive surfaces that respond to the world around them. The significance of Styles’s Instagrams arguably, too, only gain cultural relevance as his audience engages with them.

So what did fans make of the cryptic posts? Some posited a modelling career announcement would follow, others theorised that it was a nod to a Taylor Swift song “Blank Space”, and that the former couple would soon confirm they were back together. Still more thought this suggested an oncoming solo album launch.

You can understand why a solo album launch would be on the tip of most fans’ tongues. Instagram has become a popular platform for the cryptic musical announcement — In April, Beyoncé teased Lemonade’s world premiere with a short Instagram video – keeping her face, and the significance behind the title Lemonade, hidden.

Creating a void is often seen as the ultimate way to tease fans and whet appetites. In June last year, The 1975 temporarily deleted their Instagram, a key platform in building the band’s grungy, black and white brand, in the lead up to the announcement of their second album, which involved a shift in aesthetic to pastel pinks and bright neons.

The Weekend wiped his, too, just last week – ahead of the release of his new single “Starboy”. Blank Instagrams are popular across the network. Jaden Smith has posted hundreds of them, seemingly with no wider philosophical point behind them, though he did tweet in April last year, “Instagram Is A BlackHole Of Time And Energy.”

The motive behind Harry’s blank posts perhaps seems somewhat anticlimactic – an interview with magazine Another Man, and three covers, with three different hairstyles, to go along with it. But presumably the interview coincides with the promotion of something new – hopefully, something other than his new film Dunkirk and the latest update on his beloved tresses. In fact, those blank Instagrams could lead to a surprisingly traditional form of celebrity announcement – one that surfaces to the world via the print press.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.