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...?

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear