Wednesday 26 September 2007

This is what you want, this is what you get

Following the recent discussion of “celebrity casting” at the Finborough Theatre, I’ve been having troubled thoughts about the nature of the West End. Thanks to a small and, in some cases, brilliantly incisive audience, the discussion turned into a heated debate - not so much on the merits or otherwise of casting celebrities in plays, but of why the concept was employed, by whom, for what reasons and to what effect.

What was most immediately apparent was just the sheer size of the gulf between the thinking of West End theatres and the subsidised sector. More interesting was hearing the raisons d’etre of West End theatre put so frankly and bluntly. Paraphrased only slightly the basic argument ran: “We are in the business of making £45-per-ticket events for people who have got that sort of money.” In these days of outreach programmes, subsidised ticket costs and price reductions for the under-26/unwaged, it is quite a culture shock to hear someone effectively say 'if you can’t afford a [very expensive] ticket, that’s your problem'.

This point was quickly followed by the frank admission that, since this was their policy, they were in the business of trying to make theatre, or rather “events” - this was the word that kept cropping up - that would specifically appeal to this moneyed demographic.

I should record that the Old Vic has an ongoing commitment to subsidised tickets for under-25s, and £5 tickets for members of the Old Vic’s immediate geographical community. The excellent work done by the theatre’s youth programme since its inception, and the help this gives to young emerging artists should also be noted. But these very elements make the Old Vic wholly distinct from the other West End theatres.

The West End proper is essentially like private education: if you’ve got the money, you can go. There might be a few sops by way of bursaries or scholarships to squeeze in a few of “the deserving poor” but basically, it is only an option for the wealthy. The irony with this comparison is that it suggests a universe where British state-education is some of the best in the world. Compare the National to any West End venue you care to name: it’s hardly like comparing a bog-standard comp with Eton, is it? And the West End knows it. If you ask any commercial producer about the subsidised sector - stand well back; their irritation is explosive, their contempt blistering. Subsidies are viewed as cheating spinelessness, the compromises forced by the arts council’s politics as an untenable, bureaucratic burden.

And yet, in spite of the Arts Council’s admittedly often ridiculous box-ticking, British subsidised theatre continually artistically outstrips commercial theatre. When Matt Wolf in the Observer a few weeks ago wailed “where, oh where, is the new play?”, he only managed to broadcast his narrow West End-centric agenda (Lyn Gardner quite rightly tears him a new one here). Already this month (in London alone, and off the top of my head) the New Play could be found in the Hampstead, the Bush, the Royal Court, the Gate, Theatre 503, the Oval House and the Lyric Hammersmith.

Yes, the West End appears to be abandoning new plays at precisely the moment that new plays are enjoying their strongest bloom since the mid-nineties. And it seems harder and harder not to blame a narrow-minded, corrosively cynical management structure which appears to be utterly risk adverse. That said, when there is no funding safety net and the consequences of failure run to potential millions of personal loss, risk-aversion seems like an infinitely sensible option.

The main problem here is the cost of tickets. Putting on a new play and asking audiences to punt £10-£15 of their own money seems like a fair enough deal. It’s the price of a bottle of wine in a pub - and for much of the audience, often a straight swap. But somehow the West End has found itself in a situation where it cannot stage plays cheaply. It needs to sell large numbers of tickets which cost a minimum wage-earner’s daily pay packet (before tax) in order to break even. Putting on an untried new play and charging £45 a head is a big ask.

Worse is the fact that by and large West End theatres don’t seem to have much faith in their audience. There is more than a hint of condescension, of corrosive cynicism, and of scorched earth policy theatre-making. The whole beast is stuck in a cycle of attrition: bad production begets poor takings begets increased conservatism begets bad production, and so on. The situation seems to be such that soon the only projects generated for the West End by the West End will be Shaw, Wilde and Shakespeare acted by former-Big Brother housemates, -EastEnders and a handful of the more frequently televised theatrical knights and dames. Of course there will still be TV-backed audition musicals, American transfers, and a smattering of great work with commercial potential from subsidised theatres.

The oddest thing about the West End is - despite its apparent “event-y-ness” and the so-called glamorous atmosphere - no one actually has any affection for the buildings. Rightly so. They are, in the main, pretty dreadful. Give me the Olivier or the Barbican over anything on Shaftsbury Avenue any day. And this is another of the problems. One of the comments beneath Lyn’s piece about new work argues that it is sad that new writers are not given access to big stages. Quite right. It would be. That is why many theatres frequently bend over backwards to facilitate young writers’ access to such spaces, even if only for rehearsed readings and workshops. No one, on the other hand, is saying that it’s a shame that new/young writers aren’t writing more plays for deadly pros. arch spaces. Sure, it is a skill, and plays like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf make an enduring case for that model, but in general, don’t most people prefer different sorts of auditoria? Does every West End theatre have to be kept in this configuration? The Trafalgar Studios - in spite of its ridiculous pricing policy which refuses to let companies visiting Studio 2 charge less than £22 for full-price tickets - seems to point the way forward.

But of course, refurbs don’t come cheap, and so there needs must be countless more series of Lloyd-Webber grooming “unknowns” for musical theatre stardom before anyone can afford one. Unless, that is, either the government or a consortium with a serious amount of money step in to save the day. As it stands, the West End seems increasingly part of an entirely different universe, and one which has precious little to do with theatre.

Having said that, I’m terrifically excited to be going to see Patrick Stewart in Macbeth in the West End tomorrow night, in Rupert Goold's production that every initial review from the Chichester run assured us was an absolutely seminal production. So maybe I'm wrong about the West End after all.

Meanwhile, Michael Coveney in his latest WhatsonStage blog proves that the subsidised sector can be every bit as star-struck with his name-dropping-tastic report from the opening night of Life After Scandal. For the record, I beat Mr Coveney's star-spotting hands down last night, since by some strange stroke of fate I spent the whole bus journey back from the Hampstead sat next to a rather bemused looking Jonathan Pryce. I find it oddly comforting to know he still gets buses.


Anonymous said...

did television play any part of your discussion re;west end?

i cannot have been the only young writer around trying to scrape a living, watching with strange bemusement at 'the play's the thing' or indeed other such tv amusements such as the find-a-joseph and 'problem like maria' thing. when terrific writers such as dennis kelly and, fuck, even caryl churchill don't get a look in at the west end it seems utter madness to offer a 'first-time' writer the opportunity like 'the play's the thing'. don't get me wrong, i'm up for access stuff, but a west end play is not even on my horizon as an ambition. it just wouldn't happen to a young writer who hadn't first wowed all at the national or somewhere (eg blue/orange).

another thing is that i'm often told by literary managers to 'fantasy cast'. ie. write parts for actors of my dreams, say michael sheen or kate winslett etc. but of course, the thing is that when you say that you wrote the part for michael sheen, the director looks at you like you're nuts. new writing (with a very few exceptions) very rarely gets its fantasy cast and as such, becomes that much more difficult to sell by an unknown writer.

Anonymous said...

I really, really want you to be wrong, Andrew, but the best I can manage is a mumble that you may be exaggerating a mite. The next issue of Theatre Record should carry a letter from a significant West End producer stating that one of the problems is that the small to medium backers have all but vanished. This leaves big-stakes investors only, who are the kind of people used to big amounts, who want to do everything possible in advance to safeguard their big amounts, and so think of "risk" as casting, say, Simon Russell Beale rather than Abi Titmuss. (And having seen each onstage I know which one I'd rather see play Martha in Who's Afraid..., and which one I'd rather see play in traffic.)

But the current pattern has perfectly valid-on-its-own-terms reasons for the approach it does take. A couple of years ago Andre Ptaszynski, CEO of Really Useful, gave a talk to the Critics' Circle. At that time, if I remember rightly, his group owned 13 "musical theatres" and 12 "playhouses". So what kind of income split would you expect from that? I'll tell you: it was 89%/11% in favour of the musicals. It needs a radical shake-up to disturb the current business model, and who's going to either legislate for that or be the first to try it in a market environment?

We can bemoan and accuse all we like, but as long as the market is left to its own devices, that's what will happen. So fair enough, then, leave the market to its own devices in the West End sector, and refuse it a penny in public funding for any improvement or even maintenance plans as regards those venues, since that's nothing more than the cultural equivalent of giving huge subsidies to Virgin Rail for them then to look contemptuously on the whole tedious chore of running a train service as being something incidental and even damaging to the main business of business. But then you're just perpetuating, maybe even exacerbating, the problem.

And oi! - "every initial review" of Macbeth in Chichester? Beg to differ, li'l lady...

And as for star-spotting, at that very play this evening I saw none other than former Confessions shag-spud Robin Askwith. Well, it was either him or Michael McKean had just nipped off the set of a new Spinal Tap movie.

Andrew Haydon said...

Olly - yes, TV did play a part in the discussion last night. The most interesting point was made by a member of the audience who neatly summarised the “Who Wants To Be Maria” thing as a sort of self fulfilling prophecy - after n weeks on TV, whoever gets the part essentially IS a celebrity, after a fashion, thereby making “celebrity casting” redundant, and integrating a massive advertising campaign into the bargain. Another point, made by the same sharp cookie, was looking at the Royal Court’s poster for Ian Rickson’s leaving do - The Seagull - the poster for which showed nothing but its three most famous stars and the words “The Seagull” and the date and venue somewhere - they weren’t in costume, nothing about it suggested anything about the play: it was solely an exercise in the marketability of Kristen Scott-Thomas et al.

Re: New Writing in the West End - to be scrupulously fair, the first Caryl Churchill I saw in London was in the West End, either when the Royal Court had its residency at either the Duke of York’s or as was a transfer to the New Ambassadors. Ditto Mark Ravenhill’s Some Explicit Polaroids. This corrosion of West End values is a pretty new thing.

The thing about being asked to fantasy-cast is really interesting. I wonder why they ask one to do that. I suppose the idea is that writing for great actors frees you up to write whatever the hell you like on the basic supposition that your cast will be able to pull it off for you.

Maybe I should write a “Who’s your fantasy cast?” post for the Guardian blog.

Ian - Harder question. I really have no solution that I’d happily get behind 100%. I am a long way from convinced that state control of all theatres would be either pleasant or desirable - I do wonder if the competition offered is part of the spur that differentiates the subsidised sector from its commercial brother/sister. Also, the American model of benefactors is still massively under-rehearsed here. But yes, it is a grim old beast at the moment.

Anonymous said...

"I am a long way from convinced that state control of all theatres would be either pleasant or desirable" - oh, absolutely. It's just that that strikes me as the only significantly viable way of achieving what you do desire.

"The American model of benefactors is still massively under-rehearsed here" - and Broadway is even more inimical to new plays unless there's a big name hook to them.

It's a bastard, is what it is.