In Hamlet, the Danish prince commissions a troupe of players to perform at King Claudius’ court in Elsinore. Shakespeare own’s company, the King’s Men, regularly performed in England’s great houses for a select audience or at court for the monarch. Elizabeth I and her successors did not go out to the theatre, but they liked the theatre to come to them.
Some of the most memorable shows I’ve seen have taken place in private homes. Many years ago, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Chris Goode’s Signal to Noise produced one of the most heartbreaking takes on The Tempest I’ve ever seen. It took place in our temporary Edinburgh flat: Ferdinand did our washing up and Ariel bounced on one of the beds.
More recently, I went to a secret location in Kew to see Oneohone attempt to recreate the tension and clandestine nature of “the living-room theatre” performances of the late 1970s. They originally took place in Prague after the signatories of Charter 77, including playwright Vaclav Havel, were banned from public life and put on theatre behind closed doors.
Only last month, Leeds Playhouse (formerly West Yorkshire Playhouse ) held a ballot for locals to host Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues in their own homes. I imagine that Susan, Doris and Irene would have been all the more poignant when witnessed in your own front room. The intimacy of such events is so visceral.
The Bennett monologues were staged for free. If my memory serves, we paid about £60 for eight or so of us to have The Tempest in our Edinburgh flat. When in 1619 the King’s Men spent two nights at Londesborough Hall in Yorkshire they were paid £5 for performing five plays over a two-day period.
Even adjusting for inflation, perhaps they undersold themselves? Because a new company, Revels in Hand, has plans to create bespoke performances for private clients in their homes (or on their yachts) that come with an average price tag of around £5,000 a pop. Presumably it will appeal to people who think that, like Queen Elizabeth, they are too important to rub shoulders with the hoi polloi and reckon a £230 premium seat in the West End doesn’t do enough to separate them from the crowd.
One could, I suppose, view this as a 21st-century version of 17th-century patronage, or simply as another strand of commercial theatre. There is certainly no shame in commercial work. ‘Commercial’ should not be a dirty word. Plenty of West End shows rival work in the subsidised sector.
Neither is there a problem with artists cross-subsidising their work with better-paid opportunities. After all, Vicky Featherstone once directed a Prada catwalk show, and years ago I recall Goode telling me about creating an event in Pizza Express to launch a new menu. Ironically, he felt that gig came with far more artistic freedoms than some of the shows he had made with public funding, which come with particular demands about ‘outcomes’.
Lots of circus artists pay the rent by hanging upside down while people eat canapes beneath them, and many companies keep body and soul together with decently paid international touring gigs, which help subsidise the appallingly paid touring they do in the UK. Like anyone else, artists will accept work that puts bread on their tables, and shoes on their children’s feet. All of us do it.
A mission to create theatre for the super-rich heightens the view that theatre is elitist
Nonetheless, and maybe I’m being prissy, I do find something distasteful about Revels in Hand’s initiative. Theatre already has an image problem. A company pulling into port with a mission to create bespoke theatre for the super-rich on their yachts only heightens the perception that theatre is elitist and out of touch.
Patronage does have its place in the theatre, and it is a great pity that the affluent in the UK so seldom think to give something back through arts philanthropy. But there is a difference between dipping into your pockets to support the arts – and all the phenomenal education, community and access work that theatre does – and dipping into your pocket in order to buy exclusivity.
In a tight funding climate, and at a time when so many artists are struggling to stay afloat – particularly in London – what we really need are not companies pandering to the rich’s ability to buy privilege. Better to create schemes that would facilitate the rich, and the comfortably off, to support artists in different ways.
Perhaps that does mean opening their homes, supplying living space and food for residencies over a limited period. In return, perhaps for a month of free board, these benefactors could be rewarded with a performance in their front room, a fragment of a circus show performed in the toilet. Then all parties might feel they have mutually benefited.