`CARRIE,'' a musical due to open in New York next Thursday, has been one of the most controversial shows to be mounted on the British stage in recent times. Amid high enthusiasm over the first-ever Anglo-American collaboration of its kind, one question kept coming up: Should Britain's most prestigious drama troupe, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), be expending its talents, traditionally reserved for ``serious theater,'' on a heavy-metal horror show? ``I do not believe the RSC should become a church or a sacred cow,'' avers Terry Hands, the company's artistic chief and director of ``Carrie.'' ``I believe that we ... should be exploring all forms of cultural communication, whether that's popular culture or mass culture, or whether that's esoteric and experimental.''
Mr. Hands was speaking during a break at the Royal Shakespeare Theater, here in Stratford, where this stage adaptation of the Stephen King novel premi`ered. While we were chatting in a sun-filled artists' lounge overlooking cows grazing deep in the heart of pastoral Warwickshire, the thump of rock rhythms emanating from a room nearby seemed incongruous. But cast members of ``Carrie'' were busy incorporating one of the many changes devised after the production's lackluster premi`ere.
When the subject of the poor reviews was broached, it was clear that Hands was well aware of the critics. ``When you do a show..., your job is to please the public, involve the public, and make them happy - even if they are critics,'' he said. ``So if [the critics] are not made happy, then that's something to listen to and use, as we evolve the musical into its next stage.''
One of the main gibes critics leveled at this musical version of King's neo-Gothic tale, in which an awkward teen-age outcast uses telekinetic powers to destroy everything and everyone at her high school prom, has been the triviality of the libretto.
Hands offered a thoughtful rebuttal: ``This is not Shakespeare. This is not a portentous piece. People talk in very simple terms to each other. ... They are interested in whether their hair is splitting, or if they've got braces still, or whether they've got their first boyfriend or not. Now that, by its nature, we might say, if taking an intellectual pose, is trivial. It happens to be what 99 percent of the people do talk about when they're worried. ... That's not to say all human beings in life are quintessentially vain .... It does say, however, that, as Carrie sees it, this is what they are interested in.''
Another point raised by some critics here concerns the questionable taste of focusing on the physical side of Carrie's passage through puberty. Hands acknowledged that the subject might seem odd to weave in between song and dance. But, he argued, ``Stephen King did not write a fatuous book. ... What he did was very valid: He extended the strength that a woman gains through reaching puberty - i.e., she becomes a woman and is no longer a girl - into the idea of a whole new strength and power ... as expressed through telekinesis. OK, that's a sensational aspect, but is that unusual in a fairy tale, which is what `Carrie' essentially is? No.''
As for the key question of why the formidable Royal Shakespeare is associated with a ``pop opera,'' Hands saw no incongruities. The company, he explained, needed a winter show and, after doing a season of American plays, it seemed an additional American show would round things off nicely.
It's also widely recognized that ``Carrie'' could bring the company considerable revenue if the show does well on Broadway, while the company risks nothing if it folds early.
Having sold out long before its opening here in Stratford, ``Carrie'' recovered the company's own financial investment - and then some - before moving to Broadway; its German co-producer, Friedrich Kurz, had also ensured that, even if the show fails in New York, the RSC won't lose a penny.
So is this venture simply a crass example of the monetarist policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher forcing subsidized arts bodies, such as the RSC, to scrabble for commercial gain?
No, Hands insisted, pointing out that the RSC is enjoying significant profits from its West End staging of ``Les Liaisons Dangereuses'' and spinoff productions of ``Les Mis'erables,'' as well as a slight increase in public funding, and some recent public and private gifts.
```Carrie' is an experiment,'' said Hands, ``an exploration of a form that we would like to get better at. What fascinates me,'' continued the director who has built his reputation on the staging of classical works, ``is trying to do [a story] through song and dance and popular culture.... We definitely want to do more. I haven't had so much fun in years!''