Saturday, 16 April 2011

Making make believe

Not an excoriation of the political class this morning, but in praise of regional theatre. 

First, the myth that those of us who live in London are out at the theatre all the time. It's just not true. I suppose I've averaged about one visit a year in London - in contrast to the days I still lived in Suffolk, when half a dozen plays a year was not uncommon. The reason for this was regional rep theatre; a small company of players in a modest venue with an ambitious repertoire. In the course of a season, they'd mount whatever Shakespeare was on the Cambridge 'O' level syllabus for that year, a whodunnit, something by Ibsen or Chekov, a panto, and something slightly edgy written by a post-war Lesbian. If the rep theatre in Ipswich wasn't playing what you wanted, a short trip up the road to the gem of a Georgian rep theatre in Bury St Edmunds was there. And if Malvolio bore a slight resemblance to the chap in the trilby in last weeks 'The Ghost Train' or to the rich chap in 'Little Foxes', then it was soon forgotten in the suspension of belief that makes great theatre. 

Ipswich Rep closed many years ago and became a pub. The first time I met someone for a drink there, I couldn't believe how small it was; we were sitting at a table on what had been the stage and it was tiny. Yet I had known this space to be a convincing Danish castle hall, a busy London street and countless vast Edwardian drawing rooms. Whatever magic had been at work had all departed; I searched intently at the floorboards, expecting perhaps to see something, some trace of all the actors footsteps perhaps, but they were just timber boards. Bury Rep is still there, but without a rep company. They just host touring acts these days. 

The members of the rep companies earned practically nothing. In the 1980s, as Assistant Stage Manager, or 'gofer', would earn £41.50 for a 60-hour week plus free dog-biscuits (one of the sponsors was an animal feed mill). I'm not sure why they all folded; TV and video, I suppose. Or easier money being an extra on the 'Bill'. Or Health and Safety. Or the gubbment ruling that they couldn't do Shakespeare or Ibsen any more as it was 'elitist' and they had to put on plays no-one would come to by new black playwrights. And it's this latter interference in the arts that infuriates me.

If you want a play that's 'intellectually accessible' to use the jargon to a Somali, a Pashtun and a chap from Southern Sudan simultaneously, you can't do better than Shakespeare, or Kit Marlowe; indeed, they'd understand 'Tamburlaine' with an insight few sheltered Anglians would have. Yet the poor buggers are condemned to sit through some patronising drivel from an untalented nobody with an Arts Council grant who is inchoately angry about their bottom or whatever.

Let's roll back those large cash-hungry regional theatres with well-paid staffs and press officers, all dependent on tax cash. Let's encourage rep companies to re-emerge, in their own small theatres, making make-believe and bringing joy and wonder to ordinary folk of whatever class, creed, caste or colour. And let's flip the bird to anyone who tries to impose a social agenda on the theatre. 


English Pensioner said...

I have always been against state aid to the arts in any form whatsoever. If it can't attract an audience by providing what the public wants why should we all pay for something we don't want which a minority believe we should have?
Any state money should go towards preserving art of the past when sufficient time has gone past for a reasonably objective view to be taken as to whether it is worth preserving; this could range from paintings, old films, sculpture, buildings, gardens, engineering, science etc. But money should never be given to supporting any form of current "art" activity,it should prove its own worth.

Gopher No1 said...

In the 1980s I was the gopher (secretary, performing rights acquirer, assistant treasurer, receptionist, front of house manager etc) for an amateur dramatic company in West London. There were about 20 of us and we mounted one play every three months in the hall of one of the local schools. We advertised it a week or so in advance by printing off small fliers ourselves on an ink hand press printer (no computers in those days!) and tramping the local streets dropping them into every house letter box in a 2 mile radius. We did four performances, Thursday and Friday evening, plus one Saturday afternoon and evening. We charged a nominal one pound entry fee (50p for children) to cover production costs and always had full houses for every performance. I do not know if that company still exists as I was offered and accepted an overseas contract by my employer and lost touch with the group as the years went by.