Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Helvetica and theatre

Sitting at the computer writing blog stuff is a fine occupation when you’re not doing a lot of sitting at the computer otherwise, writing or preparing for writing (e.g. reading and analysing and making notes). But that’s what I have been doing because of the history research I'm involved in -- hence my recent poor showing here.


I started a posting a few weeks ago saying that I'd been to the National Theatre – to see not a play (God, no) but an exhibition of James Ravilious’s photographs. Ravilious deserves a serious entry in himself but the point I wanted to make was about the National Theatre, that I've always felt a lack of affection for it and that part of the reason is its use of Helvetica as the house typeface. That link is to something I wrote about Helvetica before (right, when I was properly fulfilling my responsibilities as a blogger).

In that context I find Helvetica cold and corporate, inimical to thoughts of theatre’s excess. On the posters round the theatre and in tube stations and in the pages of the season’s programme booklet, all the different plays are announced in the same font of the same size, though differing in colour, alignment and orientation. The scheme evokes some bureaucrat’s masterplan: category Programme, subcategory Plays, item Individual Play. It’s not appropriate and smacks of executives and NHS hospital signs (they aren’t Helvetica but evoke the same spirit).

It’s a handsome typeface, of course, no doubt about it and it looks good against brutalist architecture.

But it doesn’t go with thoughts of the subtle variation of plays with their delicacies and crudenesses and wildnesses, where the spirit of buttoned-up self-satisfied Helveticaness is just one pole amongst the many that are set in dynamic tension. (That’s if you can have more than two poles.)

I suppose when Helvetica was first devised and issued it was exhilarating and Bauhausy. But by now it’s been tainted, like so many good modern things, through its Cold War appropriation by American capitalism. I think.

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