Stage struck


Is it a bird? Is it a play? It’s a superhero, writes PETER CRAWLEY

WHO CAN save the theatre now? Philanthropists, whose hefty donations may be rewarded with a theatre named after them? Or will celebrities keep coming to its rescue, with stars such as Alan Rickman, Stockard Channing, Andrea Corr and (soon) Brian Dennehy doing their bit to swell Irish box-office coffers? Hey, how about the IMF?

No, the more likely answer is less fantastical. The theatre’s future now rests with superheroes. At least that’s the impression you get from Spider-Man: Turn Off the Darkand Batman Live, whose creators have decided that only the stage can now bear the gravity of their otherwise gravity- defying characters.

As a fan of ridiculous spectacle, I can only consider this a good thing. Yet my spidey senses tingle with concern. For one thing, if God had wanted comic book characters to be in the theatre, he would never have given them cinema.

Take a look at the Spider-Manmusicl. At $60 million (€44 million), this is the most expensive show in Broadway’s history. It has everything: Julie Taymor as director, music from Bono and The Edge, aerial stunts and circus skills. But maybe that’s the problem. What Taymor did so brilliantly for her stage version of The Lion King– transforming an animation through physical ingenuity – is a much harder task for CGI.

The most hilarious and slightly horrifying news about the troubled show is that two investigations are examining one flying manoeuvre “in which actors are launched from the back of the stage like a slingshot”. Who’s designing these stunts, Wile E Coyote? Did we learn nothing from The Lord of the RingsWest End musical, whose hydraulic stage nearly turned one actor into Hobbit-paste? These special effects tend to end with a “Splat!” – unless it’s Batman Live, which presumably ends with a “Ker-plow!!!” That show, which visits Dublin and Belfast next summer, solemnly promises that “This is not a musical”, dashing any hopes for Batman: Pull Up Your Tights.

Having spent years shrugging off campness for broodiness and routine heroics for unresolved father issues, superheroes now come to the stage asking to be taken seriously. But why stop there? What superheroes should really do is fly into a drama rather than a stunt show, leave their powers in the phone booth and slide into naturalism. Imagine O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, where all the delusional drunk are now Spider-Man associates past their prime. Or Shaw’s Man and Superman, in which characters discuss capitalism and social reform while wearing capes.

The mash-up possibilities are obvious – Oedipus ReX-Men, The Incredible Hamlet, A Wonder Woman of No Importance. But I fear that even these brilliant ideas will be kryptonite to producers and punters alike. It’s a shame, because there’s more to drama than wires and slingshots and Bono.

Hey superheroes, let the theatre save you for a change.