Giving British theatre (and me!) a leg up

Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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Sometimes, as I keep saying here, you can't be everywhere, but my timing could have been better. At exactly the same time that the great and good of British regional theatre were gathering forces on the South Bank last Thursday morning for the the Nick Hytner/Danny Boyle-led press conference on the threats posed to the sector by government cuts, I was in a different kind of theatre – an operating one, dealing with my own long beleaguered hip.

But it was interesting, later than afternoon, when I came round from my anaesthetic, to find the news TV channels giving it a lot of play: the PR feat of raising consciousness on this had been pulled off significantly.

At least I could fix the hip more easily than British theatres woes, though; and it was wonderful to see Nick Hytner marshalling a brilliant live response on Sky News to questions about regional councils, already being forced to make hard cuts in essential services, that it shouldn't be a question of either/or.

In a piece for The Observer on Sunday, Hytner quoted Boyle's observation that theatres

create communities… what they provide is something else to believe in; something in our cities and towns that isn't Wetherspoon and Walkabout pubs and Mario Balotelli and John Terry.

As Hytner went on to comment:

They are, in other words, a cornerstone of what somebody once called the "big society" and an agent of social and economic regeneration of once bleak town centres.

The social and economic benefits that go along with that far outweigh the savings that are likely to be made by cutting arts budgets. As for culture minister Maria Miller's suggestion that theatres should look to get the shortfall get plugged by philanthropy, Hytner superbly replies,

I can speak with some authority as the director of a theatre that has doubled its charitable income over the past six years. We have been able to do this because we are a) in London and b) properly funded in the first place. Eighty per cent of philanthropic giving to the arts benefits London, and almost invariably private funding follows public funding. To pretend otherwise is to betray not only the theatres that have so risen so magnificently to the challenges of the last few years, but also the communities they serve.

I loved Boyle's post-press conference broadside against Miller's notable failure to engage with any of the artists she's funding (or reducing funding for) so far:

Not one of those [artistic directors, including Hytner] has been even approached by this woman. That is outrageous. This is cultural life of our country. She is the minister of fucking culture. I mean, come on. It's a disgrace: it is these artistic directors that are spending the taxpayers' money. And she's not met them. They are the people spending the money – she should be talking to them.

In a well-argued blog for Whatsonstage, Michael Coveney pointed out the crux of the argument:

Our cultural life is a patchwork of interconnecting events and improbable fictions. Danny Boyle said that he got the idea of alternating Benedict Cumberbath and Jonny Lee Miller in Frankenstein at the NT from seeing the RSC alternating Richard II and Buckingham in Stratford-upon-Avon. Daniel Evans said his life changed when he saw Ian McKellen's Richard III three times on tour in Cardiff. David Martin of the Oldham Coliseum said that there was only one entertainment alternative to his theatre in the town: heavy drinking. And [Liverpool's Gemma] Bodinetz recounted how her back-stage staff had  fitted up a boys' football pitch with new lighting and  reaped a technical skill spin-off from participation in the community. None of this was hysterical or special pleading. It was the plain truth of the matter: that all of our lives are immeasurably enhanced and improved by state-subsidised theatres throughout the country which in turn contribute to the economy and perpetuate the not wholly ridiculous idea that our theatre - our actors and writers - are the best in the world.

I am, I know, truly blessed to be able to live and work in this world, covering it here and elsewhere, and I never take it for granted. Nor do I take for granted the wonderful flurry of messages I received regarding my operation, via e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook, from some of the people who make our theatre what it is. Thank you all.

I am going to share just three: casting director Anne Vosser sent a hilarious cartoon.

Playwright/director Terry Johnson posted on Facebook:


One version of La Cage I had three leading men with two original hips between them.

And finally @West EndProducer tweeted:

Hope all goes well today & that you are nice and flexible soon. I need you for 'Critic : The Musical', #dear