Oliviers – throwing out the baby with the bath water?

The nominees for this year's Olivier Awards pictured at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. Photo: Pamela Raith Photography
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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On Broadway, the entire season is built around a single event – the Tony Awards – and the opportunity it presents to offer a nationwide showcase of the theatre district’s wares. A cluster of other awards ceremonies also coalesce around the Tonys – presented this year on June 9 – rewarding areas of theatrical endeavour that, while often overlapping, have a much wider reach than the Tonys, which are confined only to the 35-40 shows that played on Broadway during the preceding 12 months.

The Tonys are therefore shamelessly and explicitly a marketing exercise for Broadway, as much as they are a way of rewarding excellence.

In Britain, similarly, we have a range of theatre awards. These, too, have their own agendas and ways of working, but the Oliviers most closely resemble the Tonys in being promoted by the industry itself, through its official channel of the Society of London Theatre, the trade body that represents major London theatre owners and producers, creating work for the 52 major commercial and subsidised venues in central London.

Though prestigious and sought-after for the public and professional recognition they bestow, the Oliviers’ operation has been shrouded in mystery and seems to have produced some perverse results, such as in 2010 when Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop scooped the best new play award over the more obvious front-runners of Jerusalem and Enron.

That’s been thanks to a judging panel of nine members, partly made up of ‘industry professionals’ and members of the public, whose deliberations and voting take place behind closed doors, the precise count of which is never revealed.

No wonder the Oliviers have had trouble being taken too seriously outside of those who win them. Neither have they hitherto established themselves as central to the theatre year – whatever that is, and which seems to be a moveable feast anyway. Indeed, this year’s ceremony takes place two weeks later than last year’s, and eligibility for consideration has accordingly seen The Audience (which opened on March 5) featuring extensively, whereas The Book of Mormon (which opened on March 21) missing out entirely. It has duly left the new musicals category notably thin, with three of the four shows nominated based on old, pre-existing scores (Soul Sister, The Bodyguard and Top Hat) while the fourth, Loserville, was itself based on a pop album.

The Oliviers routinely have a retrospective flavour. Of 74 nominations in the main theatre categories this year – excluding the award for achievement in affiliate theatres and the dance and opera awards – only 34 are for productions still running.

If nominations, arrived at by a judging panel and a canvassing of the entire SOLT membership, and the timing of eligibility rules inevitably create those kind of anomalies, last year Julian Bird, chief executive of SOLT, radically overhauled the event itself. Instead of taking place behind the closed doors of a hotel or banqueting hall, as it did for much of the last decade, he relocated the ceremony to the Royal Opera House, also the home of the BAFTAs. It returns there this Sunday. And, in a particular coup, Bird has also negotiated to bring it back to network television for the first time in a decade, with ITV screening a highlights package later the same evening, while BBC Radio 2 continues to broadcast the event live.

But a bigger, but much quieter, rebranding exercise is happening behind the scenes, as SOLT reorganises the way the awards are judged, with voting thrown open to the entire SOLT membership of theatre owners and producers – some 153 individuals – plus the existing panel of nine.

Not only will the Oliviers therefore offer a chance for SOLT members to slap themselves on the back, but they should also afford a better chance of the right backs being slapped – or, at least, of serving those with arguably the right commercial interests.

Since 2000, the subsidised sector has dominated the awards (see panel). Over the last 13 years, 160 winners originated in subsidised theatres, which may subsequently have transferred to the West End, and/or had co-producing partners from the commercial sector. This compares with 76 ‘commercial’ winners – a reckoning that also includes wins at the unfunded Shakespeare’s Globe.

In every year but one, the best new play has originated in the subsidised sector – seven of them at the National alone, with the sole exception being 2010’s The Mountaintop, first seen at the fringe’s unsubsidised Theatre503.

Wins for acting in plays, whether by leading actors, actresses or supporting players, have largely been taken by performances that originated in subsidised productions, mostly at the NT or under the auspices of the Donmar Warehouse.

Subsidised wins for best actor number ten times (including four at the Donmar, three at the NT and two at the Royal Court); for best actress, eleven times (including four each at the NT and Donmar, and one each at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Court and Almeida); and for supporting performances, sometimes split into separate male and female awards, 15 times against three commercial-sector wins.

Even in the musicals categories, where the commercial theatre provides the most product, the subsidised sector has fared disproportionately well whenever it has fielded entries. The best new musical has been won half of the last dozen years by shows from subsidised theatres, including last year’s epic sweep for the RSC’s Matilda. On the musical revivals front, subsidised theatres have scored eight of the 12 wins, including four at the NT and two at the Donmar.

By any reckoning, the major winners are clearly skewed towards the subsidised sector. That may, of course, be proof of the value of public funding and the excellence it engenders and facilitates. But at the same time, it’s not difficult to imagine SOLT’s old guard grumbling at how their own awards have seemingly been hijacked by subsidised venues, which have it easier both in terms of raising finance and attracting the best talent.

And now that the NT has become a major commercial producer in its own right, cutting out West End producing partners, that sense of exclusion has arguably been amplified.

But it may be that a different, wider judging panel will produce strikingly different results this year. Of course, questions remain about how it will operate, though SOLT president Mark Rubinstein has told this paper, “We are encouraging members to vote only in categories where they have seen all the nominees”. The late change to this protocol means that it is too late for them to catch up on the many shows that have long since shut.

In future years, producers will be encouraged to invite their fellow SOLT members to see their shows. Nevertheless, producers and theatre owners will, quite naturally, back their own horses, and lobby their friends and associates to do the same thing. The former independence of the awards has therefore potentially been thrown out with the bathwater in an attempt to bring the Oliviers back to the commercial theatre, whose interests it clearly wants to serve.

Read Mark Shenton interview with Oliviers’ co-host Hugh Bonneville