Before the pandemic, London’s theatres were in a state of artistic necrosis. Our theatre world insider asks whether, after a year of enforced shutdown, anything will change.
I love the immediacy of theatre. I think there are few things that match its capacity to inspire communal rapture. And there are very few that can so beguilingly show us the pleasures of togetherness and collaboration, as well as the precarious magic of live art.
It’s just that the theatre is screwed. The industry has been ravaged by the pandemic – or rather, by the measures deemed necessary to control it. But it was in a bad place even before the virus seeped into its threadbare structures. COVID’s disruption of theatre’s norms was unexpected and painful, yet also an opportunity to transform them. An opportunity missed.
Social distancing was never going to work in venues that need to be 60 per cent full in order to break even, and most theatres have now been closed for a year. When they were forced to shut last March, many feared that the government would fail to provide any financial support for the sector. After all, the arts aren’t exactly a breeding ground for Toryism, and theatre has a robust record as a forum for political dissent.
A now-infamous government-backed ad compounded this impression, with its bovine suggestion that an out-of-work ballet dancer’s ‘next job could be in cyber’. Even as the prospect of a bailout loomed, the newsletter Popbitch reported that the country’s most famous long-distance driver, Dominic Cummings, had allegedly growled, ‘Tell the fucking dancers that they’re at the back of the queue.’
When an aid package was announced, the money was slow to be distributed, with some strange decisions made about who should get it. For instance, did dormant Birmingham club night Sundissential really merit an award of £223,822? Meanwhile the freelancers crucial to the industry’s creative life experienced what was described as ‘rescue deficit’ – one of the slimiest euphemisms I’ve encountered even in the muculent age of Coronaspeak.
Although the industry makes a lot of noise about its vitality, the truth has long been much less rosy.
A handful of shows earn big money. A few others cover their costs. Most theatre, though, survives on a mixture of goodwill and sponsorship. Ticket prices are high, but many of the most talented artists scrape by in a state of excruciating uncertainty. The industry’s rampant neophilia is bad for anyone mid-career. The words ‘new’ and ‘young’ are used as if they’re synonyms. Older actors and creatives (especially older women) are barely visible. Structural change happens at snail’s pace, yet artists are obliged to work too hastily, while the management side of theatre companies has an in-built tendency to grow bloated and costly.
But British theatre’s most immediate problems are architectural. Though some productions happen in open or liminal spaces, its ecology is mainly an indoor one, and the buildings, regarded even by their owners as unwieldy heirlooms, shrink the vision of their occupants.
This is especially true of the gilded barns of London’s West End. Like it or not, they define the popular understanding of what theatre is. Yet they are barely fit for purpose. Over the last decade many have been expensively tarted up, but the legroom is still tight for anyone over six foot, and the paltry provision of toilets, particularly for women, suggests that the original Victorian patrons must have had stupendous powers of bladder control.
To mention such things is, I’ve found, to invite accusations of triviality. But the ways in which we frame the experience of art shape how we view it and indeed what we perceive. These venues are deeply unsympathetic. Can you see? Can you hear? Is the work well served by the environment, and do the actors and technical crew relish its idiosyncrasies?
Even when the answers are affirmative, it’s hard to forgive the insipid quality of the fare on offer – which is not a reference to the beige Pinot Grigio served in the overpriced, understaffed bars. In this velvet-clad realm where imported musicals rule and ticket prices for all but the nosebleed seats are exorbitant, there is very little to excite the unconverted.
The few intelligent new plays that make it to the West End, such as Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica and Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance, feel broader and less pointed than in their first incarnations in smaller, plainer venues. When it comes to revivals, the pinnacle of audacity is not exactly sky-scraping: doing a ho-hum Harold Pinter with a jumble of bankable celebs. I’m tormented by the memory of a Saturday night performance of No Man’s Land starring Sir Ian McKellen, where at the end the punter immediately in front of me turned to his partner and said, ‘That was a load of old bollocks. But I’m glad I got to see a bit of Gandalf.’
Alert theatregoers may in fact have seen every inch of Sir Ian, but the ‘glad I got to see a bit of Gandalf’ attitude is commonplace. While big names don’t guarantee fat returns, their absence pretty much guarantees meagre ones. And the vehicles chosen for stars must be tried and tested, which is to say washed out. Suppose Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling hit Shaftesbury Avenue: they’d be in Private Lives, not Philip Ridley’s Tender Napalm.
In the subsidised theatre, no one’s selling T-shirts, and there is greater scope for risk-taking. Here, so the joke goes, we find riches of the imagination, not the reverse. Yet subsidised theatre is every bit as much of a game as its commercial cousin – and perhaps more so, as shrinking grants and political uncertainty oblige the recipients of subsidy to move with feline caution.
Artistic directors run these institutions, usually in a sort of child–parent relationship with an executive director. They get the job largely on the strength of their past productions, but superintending a building poses challenges very different from reinterpreting The Cherry Orchard.
The outstanding British AD so far this century has been David Lan, whose eighteen years at the Young Vic were a lesson in adventurous programming. An anthropologist by training, Lan was few people’s idea of an exceptional director of shows, but he was a superlative tastemaker, networker and curator, pleased to indulge the maverick visions of figures such as Luc Bondy, Katie Mitchell and Richard Jones. A different but similarly inspiring model of leadership is Alan Lane, whose company Slung Low coordinates social care in a deprived part of Leeds, extending beyond its usual ambit the notion of theatre as an act of radical empathy.
On the whole, though, the people who run buildings prioritise what suits them personally, and this applies especially to the kind of work they put on. When they promote emerging artists, they too often choose ones who precisely replicate their own values. In doing so they hoard power. Sometimes this is inadvertent, but it results in groupthink (a feature of which is a noisy insistence that any accusation of groupthink is red-trousers reactionary).
The alternative to power hoarding tends to be a mushy style of leadership that regards itself as consensual but is really just confused – paralysed by conflicting imperatives. A theatre in receipt of state subsidy has licence to be intrepid, but will be pilloried if it lets commercial considerations slide. There’s pressure, rightly, to nurture new and diverse talent, not least by elevating the voices of previously unheard communities, but audiences expect to see established artists (and in largely familiar guises). An AD has to be good at filling in forms and writing funding applications, at the same time as championing a worldview that shuns such reductive and bureaucratic gestures. Programming thus becomes not a matter of sensibility, but an attempt to accommodate the irreconcilable motives of art, money and social good.
Chillingly, the most nimble ADs often end up arguing that theatre ought to be more like something else: film, sport, religion, clubbing, dogging. Okay, not dogging. But it should resemble these (so the theory goes) more reliably rewarding pursuits… and be less like itself.
One of the least welcome theatrical trends of the last ten to 15 years has been the profusion of self-declaredly immersive productions that are a cross between shit dinner parties and 1980s home computer games. (Hello, Punchdrunk!) The fruits of the so-called gamification of theatre often feel like the half-finished experiments of people who have discovered that there are a lot of folks over 30 who will pay £12 for a badly made daiquiri if it’s served with a side order of Hunter S Thompson-themed chutzpah.
Technology can be a revolutionary force in the theatre. During the pandemic this idea has, of necessity, been to the fore. But in practice it can mean the theatre doing the things it usually does in circuitous and effortful ways. In lockdown, the online shows that have proliferated have tended to be monologues or to feel like Zoom conversations: a doctor reckoning with an embittered patient, ill-starred couples toying with unlikely romance, riffs that mimic the syntax of dyspeptic emails, even a repetitive threnody for the spirit of the Blitz. There are hints of greater innovation now, and online theatre certainly has the potential to collapse the art form’s familiar geographical borders. Yet the lack of shared and palpable ‘liveness’ is a drawback. Livestreaming is promoted as the brightest solution. But even as it increases access, it depletes the social experience. Besides, one of theatre’s attractions is surely its resistance to the indiscriminate embrace of all things digital.
What’s more, there is a dangerous assumption that online theatre will be free to consume. So who pays those involved? And if they’re not paid, how will they survive? Not for the first time, there’s a real risk that creative opportunities are viable only for those with independent means.
The Arts Council, the quango which allocates public money to theatres and theatre companies, burbles about remedying this. In recent years there have been steady efforts to refresh both its own culture and the National Portfolio Organisations it funds. But its ideas of accessibility, set out in sapless corporate lingo, sound the very opposite of expansive.
Its distaste for the word ‘artist’ is particularly revealing. The preferred term is now ‘creative practitioner’, which is felt to be more inclusive. But can the way to get more people into theatres really be to talk about art as if it’s a task akin to fitting a new toilet seat?
In 2019 the Arts Council decided that relevance, not excellence, would be the key criterion in deciding who should receive its largesse. Anyone who has sat through an ostentatiously ‘relevant’ play or production will know that the word is a guarantee of clunking fatuity. Take the many theatrical attempts to engage with the climate crisis. Most have been lumpen and earnest. The National Theatre’s Greenland remains the great cautionary example of what happens when a punishingly dull public service broadcast is transposed into another medium, with no expense spared and no bad idea unmined.
The trouble with crapping on about relevance is that it causes theatre makers to strain for a painfully on-the-nose topicality: ‘Ah, we must do a piece about knife crime/online grooming/escalating spice use in Cat. B prisons.’ In fact, it is theatre’s form, not its content, that needs reimagining. The advocates of relevance would have squashed the idea of a musical about an 18th-century American legal scholar, but if the immense success of Hamilton tells us anything it’s that even the dry straw of Cabinet meetings and political pamphlets can be spun into gold if the artist has a sincere interest in them (and has rare talent).
This seems particularly pertinent where historically stifled voices are concerned. The effort to give them breathing space is real. But it hasn’t yet amplified their stories, because the idea of mission – of making people-centred theatre, full of heart and pain and truth – endlessly gets sidelined by pettifogging anxieties. Nothing in theatre is so sure to derail a good idea as a dispute about some piddling question of infrastructure or a paranoid eruption of internal politics. One example: five years ago when Emma Rice took the reins at Shakespeare’s Globe, a venue at the time mired in dutiful tediousness, her enthusiasm for making shows that were audible, visible and rambunctiously entertaining was swiftly kiboshed by heritage buffs.
The Globe is a place I enter with a heart as heavy as November. Even so, each show I see there reminds me that whenever theatre happens, it is happening now, and we measure it against our own nowness. That’s a motto worth holding up, and it is a little more compelling than the topicality mandated by the nodding quangocrats in their floral shirts.
But let’s return to the question of form. British theatre is known, to the point of cliché, for being text-fixated – literary in origin and impulse, rather than directorial. Though that has slowly changed in the last 20 years, the theatrical mainstream is still dominated by an idea of the playwright as a writer instead of – as the suffix ‘-wright’ surely implies – a builder and shaper, a controller of experiences rather than just of words.
It might seem to be a tonic, then, that thinking of the playwright as something other than a writer is now a staple of creative MA courses. But this fizzy new orthodoxy has some undesirable effects. One is that the rising generation of playwrights has a very cramped relationship with language. The opposite consequence is a farouche determination to be the sort of playwright praised for ‘raw lyricism’ or ‘visceral intensity’, urgently concerned with words the way bonobos are urgently concerned with frotting.
Across both camps, there is an artisanal worthiness that is the death of humour. At theatres which exist to celebrate new writing, such as the Royal Court, comedy is treated as if it’s both uncool and ideologically suspect, like cricket or Prosecco. This aversion to mirth has infected even veterans such as Tom Stoppard, whose most recent play, Leopoldstadt, boasted only one good joke, and Alan Bennett, whose last two plays have contained none.
It doesn’t help that theatre’s chroniclers and inquisitors are so preponderantly verbal. I’ve been to opening nights where I have seen critics sweatily thumbing the play text rather than watching and listening. The ability to capture the shape and grain of a production is less prized, or at any rate less common, than the ability to summarise its plot and pick out a couple of fragrant quotations.
This is far from being the only problem with the prevailing critical culture. Critics ought to hold theatre to account, but most are soft. A few right-wingers make a habit of hard tackling, but going in two-footed is never courageous. And most of their teammates are crab-like midfielders whose instinct is to move sideways, vaguely wiggling their pincers.
Though it is no longer true that British theatre critics are all pale and male, their idiom remains bloodless. They routinely praise mediocre work and misunderstand anything audacious. Many who write for the national press barely rise above regurgitating PR, and few know much about the technical business of how theatre is actually made.
As a tribe, professional theatre critics are vulnerable. Editors see specialist arts writers as expendable, and the critics, who know this, make themselves useful by pandering to their employers’ fixations. Chief among these is the notion that the arts are only worth giving much exposure when there’s a news angle. Photos from a glitzy after-party are not criticism, nor even journalism, and exist only to tickle advertisers. Vapid interviews are afforded vast space, but analysis and investigation are marginalised. And for those genuinely interested in theatre, a measly, plot-explaining 500-word review is an artefact as stale as a Precambrian turd.
What could be different? What needs to be? Instead of relevance we ought to prize responsiveness. All shows should have a life beyond the building in which they were created. People with disabilities should be made welcome. So should children. There are times to start a performance other than 7.30 and 2.30pm. Generously endowed theatres with fancy streaming platforms should make them available to smaller organisations. Producers should subsidise criticism by paying for a diverse panel of writers to review their shows, on the understanding that the write-ups can definitely still be unfavourable. Ideas of excellence should be put under the microscope whenever possible.
What else? Drama must be part of the national curriculum, as a subject in its own right rather than sheepishly folded into an under-resourced corner of English. No artistic director should remain in post longer than seven years, and the boards to whom they’re answerable should change with similar frequency, though not at exactly the same time. No one in an institution should earn more than six times what the lowest-paid employee makes. And everyone should be financially rewarded for their efforts. Well, not the audiences, but fuck it, maybe we ought to give people money to take an interest in the arts. If only to trounce the old philistine gripe ‘I wouldn’t watch it if you paid me.’ Or perhaps that’s just the giddy conceit of someone who missed out on the novelty of Timothée Chalamet acting opposite Eileen Atkins. Someone who’s been pining for Ibsen and Caryl Churchill, the bravura of Complicité and even the brazen daftness of Christmas panto.