Why Game of Thrones is bad news for British theatre

Published in The Telegraph on June 2, 2016

Game of Thrones must be a dream for the theatrical casting agent. It’s full of good-looking, young British actors whose involvement in the wildly successful TV show guarantees feverish interest from fans and frothing media coverage, whatever they do next. Even if it’s Elizabethan drama.

But while GoT may be turbo-charging the careers of many a young actor, it’s not doing the rest of us any favours. And the trend for casting its brooding leads in West End productions has so far been met with all the warmth of a White Walker.

Alfie Allen is the latest to have a crack, appearing in Jesse Eisenberg’s play The Spoils, which opens tonight. Here’s hoping it bucks the trend for overly-hyped hot tickets that fizzle into damp squibs.

After dismal reviews for Kit Harington in Doctor Faustus, came even worse notices for Richard Madden’s flat performance in Romeo and Juliet last week. Best known for playing Robb Stark in GoT, Madden’s Romeo was one of the lads rather than a poetic, romantic hero; The Telegraph’s reviewer Dominic Cavendish dubbed him “maddeningly ordinary”. Harington, switching from Jon Snow to Doctor Faustus, by contrast delivered much committed grandstanding – but his bare torso and waggling bottom made rather more impression than the character or play.

Broadway isn’t any easier: Emilia Clarke played Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but American critics were not kind, suggesting she was miscast. The Hollywood Reporter declared “there’s neither softness nor fragility in her grating Holly,” while the New York Times called it “distinctly leaden”, and the show closed early. This starts to look like cynical casting, and it’s no good for the stars, or for theatre audiences.

Naturally young actors want try a new art form, to move on from sword-swinging and dragon-rearing. But is it really fair to cast them as show-fronting leads? Commanding a large West End stage – and Elizabethan verse – is a big ask of any actor, let alone one who’s spent most of their career brooding for GoT cameras in Iceland.

They’re surely cast not because they’re the finest young stage actors of their generation, but because GoT has given them international fame, which in turn brings the ability to shift very expensive tickets. The top price for Doctor Faustus is £110; for Romeo and Juliet, £95. Even Doctor Faustus director Jamie Lloyd recently attacked how celebrity casting has inflated prices – before defending his own by pointing out it funds £15-on-Mondays access schemes. But often, the celeb in question is clearly being milked as a cash cow.

The other reason trotted out for big name casting is that it gets new audiences in. This is absolutely to be applauded – let’s not be snobbish about it. And popular TV and film stars can kill it onstage: Jamie Lloyd’s casting of James McAvoy has proved inspired, while Jude Law won over sceptical critics with his Hamlets and Henrys. Billie Piper successfully segued from pop star to TV actress to top-drawer board-treader, giving admired performances in The Effect and Great Britain.

But my concern with casting a star just in order to draw GoT fans is that if the show’s a dud, you’re not bringing a new audience to theatre at all: you’re putting them right off. It’s patronising to assume all they care about is gawping at a buff bod – the play needs to be hot too.

While there are actors who successfully move from screen to stage, it appears to be more difficult than the other way round. From David Tennant and Andrew Scott to Mark Rylance, Judi Dench and Patrick Stewart, the list of stars who started in the theatre and slipped easily into TV and film is both long and illustrious. Actors often talk of honing their craft by performing, night after night, as part of a company, which may be one reason. The reverse journey, shifting from acting just to a camera to commanding the attention of a whole auditorium, can’t be easy.

But it’s also more brutally to do with fame: it’s likely for GoT alumni to be over-promoted into a theatre role they don’t suit and struggle with,. Theatre actors are perhaps more likely to be given screen roles they’re really right for, making the transition easier.

For those with theatrical ambitions, there is life beyond the West End: Jack Gleeson, who played Joffrey in GoT, won acclaim with a fringe show called Bears in Space, while Gemma Whelan has impressed in two new plays by Philip Ridley. Not to disparage their performances, but it may be that performing in more modest venues, in parts that aren’t already iconic and loaded with expectation, makes for a fresher, less pressured transition.

Alfie Allen may have been taking notes. He’s about to appear in a play that has its own leading celebrity, Jesse Eisenberg, to divert the glare, making Allen’s West End debut a supporting role in a piece of new writing. This might prove his smartest move since auditioning for Game of Thrones.

Where next?