Despite the austerity, or because of it, the nation’s artists and audiences are full of life.
There were queues outside the Royal Academy when I went to see the Hockney exhibition last week, and queues for returns again that evening, when I went to see the play One Man, Two Guvnors, starring James Corden, on the penultimate night of its run. Twice in one day, in other words, I encountered mobs of people, pushing and shoving one another, desperate to get into a London cultural event. Those who had booked well in advance clutched their ticket as if it contained a winning lottery number.
Until I was inside, I didn’t understand why. There is nothing very special about Hockney’s new paintings, if examined one by one, and from the reproductions on the posters they didn’t look like much either. Nearly all of them portray not the California scenes that made him famous, but the fields and forests of East Yorkshire, where he was born. Many of them have a decidedly improvisational air, and as we gazed at one of many similar works, my American companion complained: “If you didn’t know it was by Hockney, you wouldn’t think it was anything at all.”
But the cumulative effect of these plain English landscapes – dozens and dozens of flattish fields, dullish trees and modest houses – all hung beside one another in grand English rooms, is much different from the sight of one painting alone. Together, they become something else: they show the familiar English countryside, but in different seasons, from different angles and in different light, painted in completely unfamiliar pinks, oranges, reds, purples, blues and golds. Stacked on top of one another, hanging on wall after wall, the paintings are exuberant. They glow with optimism. It’s as if it never rains in East Yorkshire, as if no one is ever sad, lonely or bored there – and certainly as if no one is ever unemployed or down on his luck.
Precisely the same optimism and exuberance permeate Richard Bean’s play. Again, there is nothing very special about the plot of One Man, Two Guvnors, a farce involving a servant (Corden), his two employers, mixed identities, gangsters and romantic confusion. The story is set in Brighton in 1963, and most of the action takes place in a shabby English flat, decorated with a portrait of the young Queen Elizabeth II, or outside an equally shabby English pub. What makes the play work – and what surely makes it popular – is the boundless energy of the performers. Corden improvises, talks to the audience, does improbable things with his face and laughs at himself. The rest of the cast put on accents, jump off piers and fall down the stairs. Every few minutes a band comes onstage and plays the sort of music one might have heard in Brighton in 1963, using washboards and xylophones as well as drums and guitars.
And everybody appears to be having a good time. The women wear beehive hairdos, the men pretend to injure themselves lifting a heavy trunk, the whole thing ends with multiple weddings – and the audience laughs, uncontrollably, from the beginning of the play until the end.
In theory, this shouldn’t be possible: some 2.67 million people are unemployed in the UK at the moment, budgets have been cut and will be cut further. The euro might be about to crash, and even the Chinese economy looks shaky. Civil war looms in Syria, Iran might have nuclear weapons, and in places like Brighton and East Yorkshire, shops are closing for want of customers.
Yet instead of angst, tragedy and existentialist poetry, Corden is miming and improvising, Hockney paints East Yorkshire in bright purple and glowing orange, Adele of Tottenham has turned her heartbreak into buoyant songs and a zillion awards – and audiences are flocking to hear and see them. Meanwhile, English critics and audiences loved The Artist, the witty, clever and rather silly French silent movie that just won five Oscars, even though it bored American audiences, who’ve made it the least profitable Best Picture in many years.
Could it be that austerity is good for England? Or at least English culture? Post-war austerity produced the Ealing comedies, after all, while the early 1980s recession produced, among other things, Noises Off – another farce that has also just been revived in the West End, where it is also playing to sell-out crowds.
Or perhaps, in an era of American retrenchment, the lure of American pop culture, and even of American success, is finally starting to fade. My companion – the one who sniffed at Hockney’s sketches – also expressed some scepticism about how well One Man, Two Guvnors would go down on Broadway, where the original cast are heading next. The accents will be hard to understand, the references – to Brixton prison, to boarding school food – will be hard to follow. But then, what English audiences want at the moment is English exuberance – and if something about this historical moment is making English artists produce it, then maybe it doesn’t matter whether anyone else laughs.