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Lyn Gardner: Is it a problem that only 864 people will see Punchdrunk’s new show?

Miranda Mac Letten and Rob McNeill in The Drowned Man – a Hollywood Fable. This image is to appear in Punchdrunk's book. Photo: Julian Abrams
Miranda Mac Letten and Rob McNeill in Punchdrunk's The Drowned Man – A Hollywood Fable. Photo: Julian Abrams
Lyn Gardner
Lyn Gardner is a theatre critic and associate editor of The Stage
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The good news is that Punchdrunk is doing a new show: it’s called Kabeiroi and is based on fragments of a lost play by Aeschylus. It’s the company’s first production for an adult audience since The Drowned Man in 2013. But the company has not been slacking: the children’s show Against Captain’s Orders  was at the National Maritime Museum, and its brilliant, and less visible Enrichment work with schools, which is a core part of its practice, has been ongoing.

The bad news is that you are already too late to get a ticket to see Kabeiroi. If you wanted a shot at securing a ticket (only sold in pairs at £55 each) you had to register with See Tickets by September 10 to take part in a ballot.

The lucky winners then get a window of opportunity during which they can book a performance of a show that lasts up to six hours, takes place across London and that will only be able to accommodate 864 during its entire run. Mind you, that’s not far short of the number of people who can be seated during a sell-out run of a production at the Finborough or some shows at the Royal Court upstairs.

Theatre, by its very nature, often has a mismatch between supply and demand because of small spaces and limited runs. However hot a movie release, if you are prepared to wait a few days, you will eventually get in to see it, because it will be on at cinemas across the country. But that’s not true of theatre, particularly not on shows in spaces with small capacity on limited runs.

Hull Truck’s production of Maxine Peake’s The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca, about the woman who clashed with bosses and unions in the quest for greater trawler safety, which will be staged in Hull’s Guildhall in November, sold out within 90 minutes of tickets going on sale. Too late too for Sam Pritchard and Chloe Lamford’s installation-style staging of Julia Jarcho’s Grimly Handsome in the Royal Court’s tiny Site venue.

You may have already missed out on Angels in America and Tom Hiddleston’s Hamlet. Like me, you might never quite get yourself organised to do the The Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Friday Forty. The latter, by the way, has a new booking period opening at 10.30am on Saturday September 16. Sometimes it feels as if trying to secure theatre tickets is becoming a full-time occupation.

Of course, there are ways and means of improving access. One is via NT Live screenings of hit shows, the other is transferring a show to a bigger space. Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman was impossible to get a ticket for at the Royal Court, but you can see it in the West End. Robert Icke’s superb revival of Andrew Scott’s Hamlet was sold out at the Almeida but I secured two £20 balcony seats at short notice in the West End on a whim, but that was because I live in London, saw they were available and bagged them. You are not going to travel from Grimsby on the off chance.

Next time a famed actor decides he wants to play Hamlet, one thing that would immediately improve access would be to insist on doing it in a regional theatre – or at least in a co-production that allows those living outside the capital to get a chance of seeing it without having to shell out for trains and hotels. Rebalancing cultural capital isn’t simply about ploughing more money into theatre beyond London. It is also about resources, talent and star names, thereby avoiding a gap developing between what happens on stages in London and those elsewhere in the country.

Access is always going to be a problem with small-capacity or small-scale shows. But does that mean we should ban artists from making shows that involve an intimacy of experience or one-on-one work because very few can get to see it?

It would be odd if in the quest for access we started asking artists to censor the kind of work they might dream of and make.

A ballot for tickets like the one for Kabeiroi at least brings some fairness into the scramble for tickets. It’s good that joining Punchdrunk’s membership scheme doesn’t confer any advantage, because as we all know most membership schemes attract support primarily because they are a way of paying to jump queues and access priority booking.

I’m not denying for a moment that £110 for two tickets is a lot of money, and will put the show out of reach of many. But maybe that’s what the show costs to make and run. The question is do we want Punchdrunk – or any other company – to just keep doing what they’ve done before (in Punchdrunk’s case mask-and-cloak shows) or keep pushing at the boundaries of what a theatre experience might be, and along the way perhaps discovering new ways to deliver a show and so increase access?

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