‘The National and RSC are victims of their own success and expansion’
Theatre needs help to survive this crisis, but in all the shout-outs for lifebelts, no one seems to be offering the sort of cost-cutting radical strategies that might attract financial sympathy. The commercial theatre is, by necessity, far more compliant – on paper at least – with the need for change. When and if the virus is defeated, it’s time to start over.
It is not yet clear what plans London’s National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company are hatching to face the future, beyond a blank cheque. But, the National and the RSC are as good as commercial set-ups these days. Each receives less than 20% of its income from the Arts Council, raises more than 50% at the box office, and millions of pounds in fundraising.
So what will happen? I had a dream one night that the National’s South Bank fortress was sold off as a car park, giant warehouse or trail-blazing new care home. The NT would then re-amalgamate with the Old Vic and the Young Vic, and the Garrick Theatre would be requisitioned as a third NT venue – it’s an ideal playhouse for new work.
I realised this dream was a replay in reverse of what happened in the last war, when the ballet lost its home at Sadler’s Wells and the Old Vic was bombed. Both companies were rescued by the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, the Arts Council in embryo, and embarked on nationwide touring and a permanent West End perch in the New Theatre (now the Noël Coward) courtesy of Bronson Albery.
Why not spearhead a new vanguard NT ensemble in, say, the Liverpool Playhouse, or the Wolverhampton Grand?
Out of this came a glorious flowering of the ballet and, especially, of the Old Vic as then led by Tyrone Guthrie, Laurence Olivier, Sybil Thorndike and Ralph Richardson. I think we need our best actors – Kenneth Branagh, Juliet Stevenson, Simon Russell Beale – to do something similar. It is not inconceivable that the NT will close one auditorium. Why not spearhead a new vanguard NT ensemble, a lean, mean and first-class set-up in, say, the Liverpool Playhouse, or the Wolverhampton Grand?
The trouble is, both the NT and the RSC are victims of their own success and expansion. They have become too unwieldy, and too expensive, in every way. The RSC should be encouraged to stay in Stratford-upon-Avon – and make getting there easier with another attempt at establishing a Stratford shuttle service, though the locals aren’t much interested. It should tour the UK, systematically, and throughout the year, bolstering the reps, while maintaining its educational activity.
Hundreds of jobs will be lost whatever the monoliths do. There will be a new reality, and it won’t be nice.
But the worst outcomes might be obviated by the theatres themselves embracing this crisis as an opportunity to reassess aims and purpose, and above all re-engage with the public, and their paymasters, in clearly defining what exactly they are about, or would like to be about.
More of the same pieties about spiritual uplift and value to the economy are totally inadequate to the situation. Begging bowls for the arts are, alas, insufficient without the serious, pioneering rethink that is needed.
Theatre is in dire straits, and in urgent need of support. We all hope that help is on its way from the government. But whatever support it receives, when theatre re-emerges from this disastrous pandemic, it will look very different. Now is the time to think about what happens next. That is what The Stage has asked people working across our sector to do: to select an issue that can be improved upon when theatre returns. The above article is one of 24 pieces in our ‘Theatre 2021’ series. There are many more topics to cover, and many more ideas to share. This series of articles is the first step in saying that despite this terrible crisis, theatre in 2021 can re-emerge, and in many ways can be better than before.