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If audiences are so well-versed in theatre, why is there so much fuss about poetry onstage?


An upcoming play at a major theatre is written in blank verse - not that the publicity would let you know

Would you attend a play written in blank verse? Of course you would; every day thousands of people go to see Shakespeare and a significant proportion probably don't even clock that it's poetry. As Ian McKellen observed: "It never worries me – in fact I'm delighted – if the audience never realises that the play is written in verse." He added: "There is never a need for the verse to be obvious to the audience. The 'voice beautiful' is a relic not of Shakespeare's style but of Victorian theatres, which were so huge that actors needed to sing out the lines in order to be heard at the back of the distant gallery."

At its best, blank verse is easy on the ear and wonderfully contemporary. Chris Thorpe's Hannah at the Unicorn is a sharp, modern version of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, featuring a 21st-century female teenage protagonist. It also happens to be written in blank verse. The iambic pentameter presents no problems for its young audience.

But maybe it does worry those trying to sell seats – hence the desire to keep the poetic bent of a certain upcoming play at a major theatre under wraps. All the publicity of this particular play is steering clear of mentioning the fact. I reckon that almost nothing is off limits in terms of content – even American Psycho could make the leap to the West End – but form is more likely to be seen as a potential sticking point when it comes to shifting tickets. It would be nice to think that it is a desire to spring a surprise on the audience that keeps the form a close-kept secret for the play in question, but I get a strong impression that nervousness about marketability plays a part. Although of course it might be canny marketing: when Sondheim's Sweeney Todd premiered in cinemas, the publicity didn't refer to the sung-through nature of the movie. Some cinemagoers demanded their money back, but many loved a movie they might never have gone to see if they had known its form in advance.

Poetry doesn't have such a great reputation in the theatre, although I reckon that's changing. Even 17th-century rhyming couplets can be made to sound wonderfully conversational and witty in great translations, such as those by Martin Crimp or Roger McGough. David Greig's The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart has been a worldwide hit, and I've never heard anyone complain that it's in rhyming couplets. The rise in the popularity of spoken-word performance has brought poetry back into the theatre, particularly in the work of Kate Tempest, who is currently on a sell-out tour of Brand New Ancients, a production that is all the better for being drenched in poetry.

TS Eliot was well aware of the resistance to verse plays and the difficulties of getting them right. He wrote: "Possibly the majority of attempts to confect a poetic drama have begun at the wrong end; they have aimed at the small public which wants 'poetry'. The Elizabethan drama was aimed at a public which wanted entertainment of a crude sort, but would stand a good deal of poetry." Well said, so it's a pity that he went and added to the problem by writing The Cocktail Party. I suspect the verse dramas of the 1950s written by Eliot and Christopher Fry, which were swept away by the angry young men who followed, have added to the modern antipathy towards poetry in the theatre. But Murder in the Cathedral can be gripping, and I rather enjoyed a revival of Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning at the Minerva in 2002, where the verse seemed fresh and rather seductive. But too often when we encounter poetry on stage it feels like drama, not theatre. Today's much more visual culture is reflected on 21st century stages.

Perhaps more recent disasters such as Tony Harrison's Fram at the National Theatre, in 2008, make the producers of this new show reluctant to reveal that it's written in blank verse, but I reckon they don't need to worry. The writer alone is draw enough, and for many the blank verse will be a bonus. If the play is good enough, audiences will be talking about "that great play", not "that play in blank verse".

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