(This article appeared in the Guardian, August 11.)

The lasting appeal of the star actor in a star part

From Helen Mirren in Phèdre to Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, nothing attracts audiences like charismatic actors in star roles

Why do we go to theatre? For lots of reasons; but one of them is obviously to see star actors in great plays. Which explains the figures recently released by the Society of London Theatre, showing that attendances at straight plays in the first half of 2009 are up by 19% on the previous year. No big surprise there when you look at what's been on offer: Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Waiting for Godot, Jude Law in Hamlet, Ken Stott in A View from the Bridge, Helen Mirren in Phèdre. To that we can now add Rachel Weisz in A Streetcar Named Desire, which is causing a box office stampede at the Donmar.

But what can we learn from all this? Mark Lawson recently argued that it showed the economic crisis was making managements more conservative and that there was a flight from the new and the risky. Now Mark is a good man with whom I normally agree, but here I beg to differ. First, I don't think there's anything reactionary about audiences craving to see Shakespeare, Racine, Beckett, Miller and Williams. Secondly, in the short time since Mark wrote his piece two new plays have appeared, which shows there is a comparable appetite for living writers. Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, running close to three-and-a-half hours, has been packing out the Royal Court. Meanwhile, Lucy Prebble's Enron has been raising a storm in Chichester, which I guarantee will be repeated when it moves to the Court in September

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