Stars still yearn for the old-fashioned high, the thrilling sound of a wildly applauding audience
So, according to the papers, Morgan Freeman doesn't want to act on stage ever again. What a blessing. Freeman is at least one Hollywood star who has realised that once you have made it in film, you don't have to go back and prove something on the boards. He commented that acting every night in a play was too much like hard work. Furthermore, why return to performing in the theatre, the great creative channel of the 19th century, when you can perform in front of millions via cinema, the great creative channel of today? He didn't say that, but he might well have done.
His comments were in my head when I went to see Three Sisters in the West End this week - or as people were putting it, "Kristin Scott-Thomas in Three Sisters". The curtain rises, we scan the stage. Much of the company is already before us; after all, this is Chekhov, great creator of ensemble pieces. But we are not admiring the classic slice of life on Robin Don's elegant set, all white blossom, big mirrors and decaying furniture. That can be enjoyed later. No, at first we are looking for the star of The English Patient, Four Weddings, Gosford Park and the rest. Is this why we are here? It might be.
Scott-Thomas is languidly sitting upstage, her face completely concealed by an open book. Is this deliberate? It must be. The director, Michael Blakemore, must know that there would be trouble in casting an A-lister in a play which announces itself in its title as the story of an equal triumvirate. And troubled it is; the other sisters, Kate Burton and Madeleine Worrall, turn out performances that are more than respectable, but burdening them with a sis whose film credits in the programme are 14 times as long as her credits for theatre is like putting a sack of sand in the bow of a kid's canoe.
It gets worse, for the audience at least. Not only do we have the gorgeous Kristin to deal with, but we also have Eric Sykes. It's not that dear Eric is a newcomer to the London stage. He is just too big a comedy star to carry a walk-on part, and, as a result, his every line is received with hysterical laughter. And to have the old manservant upstaging everyone is surely not what Chekhov meant - but then he was a century too early for The Sykes Show.
Blakemore has clearly done an Almeida. When the West End is scrapping over audiences, and tickets are costly, it's not enough to present a great classic with a cast of fine theatre actors. The RSC got into trouble for just these reasons last year when it partially disbanded its company policy. Producers know that audiences need to be tempted, and one way to do this is the lure of getting close to an idol. Come see what these airbrushed icons are really like when there is no trailer to retire to.
By casting Juliette Binoche, Ralph Fiennes and the supernova Kevin Spacey, the Almeida ensured its houses were full, even for unknown Chekhov. Even for four-hour shows! Now, no West End house is complete without Minnie, Madonna and the rest. And most of the stars are complicit. They may enjoy fame stretching across the world, but they still yearn for the old-fashioned high, the thrilling sound of a wildly applauding audience.
Rosie Millard is the BBC's arts correspondent