The lack of regional theatre in Britain, the absence of much regional opera, set us far apart from the European norm. Because London has a lot on offer, Tom Sutcliffe asks, are we right to assume that all is well?

Repertory theatre and ensembles of long-term contracted actors vanished from the United Kingdom without anyone making a real fuss, or even one of the recognized authorities on theatre expressing concern. The reps of which there were about one hundred up and down the country when the Second World War ended were part of a then quite recent movement in early twentieth-century British theatre. Ensembles on permanent or long-term contract did briefly become part of the theatrical landscape, and seemed to matter with the creation of the National Theatre in 1963 and the Royal Shakespeare Company a few years earlier. Both Laurence Olivier and Peter Hall had their own star-studded companies in the 1960s – Olivier’s formed in embryo at the new Chichester Festival Theatre. The NT could afford to run an ensemble, but it’s not how British theatre functions now, and it would be very difficult to recruit for just one standalone contracted permanent ensemble in the whole British Isles. The more famous the actor, the more freelance life appeals. There have been no regional theatre critics of standing for many years, and there are almost no local newspapers that deal seriously with culture – which is not surprising since any critics they employed would have difficulty finding much to write about outside London and Manchester.

In Great Britain the theatre has always been dominated by the West End magnet to which all actors of note have always been drawn, though Scottish and Irish theatre have fulfilled a crucial role helping to define and sustain the notion of Scots and Irish character, and thereby the nature of local nationalism. Even Michael Billington, from 1971 chief theatre critic of The Guardian in succession to Philip Hope-Wallace, did not see his role as being in part to discuss how the theatre public up and down the country outside London was or was not being fed a sustaining diet. Initially as chief theatre critic he was to an extent confined to London since the northern and early editions of the once Manchester Guardian continued, for some decades after London printing of the paper started, to publish a complete roster of performing arts reviews from specialist music, theatre, dance and even art critics in the regions. And some of those critics were even fulltime staff members.

But it was not as if there were no warning signs that something serious was happening. The last and sixteenth edition of Who’s Who in Theatre appeared in 1977, with its full detailed lists of London and New York openings and its substantial roster of biographies detailing the careers of vast numbers of actors, directors and playwrights on both sides of the Atlantic – Broadway and the West End had long been twinned, the gold standard against which provincial theatre was always likely to be found wanting. The collapse of rep was seen as a natural phenomenon, explicable in terms of declining ticket sales and public interest and rising costs. Peter Hall felt no regrets if the pier theatres in summer resorts vanished because quality like that was not worth preserving. Had not we created a National Theatre in 1963 after decades of prevarication, and a Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford whose best work could be enjoyed at the Aldwych Theatre? Change was natural and the market could not be evaded. True, a visit by Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble excited admiration and interest – and the Royal Court Theatre demonstrated comparable vitality attending to the Angry Young Men and European absurdist drama, feeding its enthusiasms and experience into the national company which Olivier created at the Old Vic. But nobody seriously contemplated examining why Germany possessed a professional theatrical culture which was spread around the whole country, with two hundred and fifty more or less permanent contracted ensembles of actors and eighty opera companies. Something to do with their different traditions, their lack of unity until the advent of Bismarck, the tinpot rivalry of different courts as described memorably by Thackeray in Vanity Fair. Today if you ask the financial controller of any Germany subsidised company, they will tell you that a permanent contracted ensemble – whether in opera or in theatre, exactly as in dance (an art where of course Britain has to have ensembles working together on a long-term basis to achieve anything of value) – is fundamental to keeping costs of performance down and productivity up, and thereby nurturing current audiences and laying the foundation for the audiences of the future, since a permanent company is available to give performances of individual productions throughout a season, which means the local public need not be on the ball about what might be worth catching, and word of mouth can gradually filter through. All of which is a good viable model for a country where there is a healthy tradition of local government as well as a substantial number of large conurbations within fiercely competing and self-conscious federal states – as opposed to the UK system where even the largest cities outside London are in fact dominated by the immense metropolis.

Just as British theatres and opera companies no longer have ensembles, so British newspapers in the course of the last thirty to forty years have given up employing staff critics. Even a purportedly left-wing newspaper like The Guardian felt no shame (apparently) about wholesale casualisation in the field of the arts. After all, following the appointment of William Rees-Mogg as chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain after the Conservative election victory of 1979 and resulting from the policies he outlined in ‘The Glory of the Garden’ and subsequently pursued, exactly the same fate was in store for the acting profession even though most of the older leading actors of today started out and won their spurs as members of weekly or fortnightly repertory companies usually in the north.

Management consultants were probably not disposed to recognise what staff critics or an ensemble of contracted actors might provide – in addition to reviews on the night and performances. It seems nobody ever pointed out the bonus that would come from critics’ identification with the institution (the newspaper title) for which they were working, assuming they were on staff, just as nobody ever persuaded local British politicians or the Arts Councils of the countries that make up the UK that ensembles of actors and singers resident in a long-lived institution will do far more than merely perform there. They become (as they are in Germany) part of the recognisable fabric of society in a town. They are owned by the local population. They get known to school children. They are turned, the best of them, into local stars. They can engender a sense of local culture, as good as what other people have, and (some locals may even say or think) as good as what you might get in London.

Live performance matters because it is a discipline – for audiences as for performers. You have to be present and awake, you have to exercise your memory and concentrate, you are not entirely passive if you are to get what you should out of it and put what you should into it. Is it really so heart-warming to think that your local football club is owned by a Russian billionaire who can purchase the best footballers around and pay them commensurately? Or would you rather be able to identify with those who are playing as the best your locality can generate? Of course there are no winners or losers in theatre, classical music, and dance. And it is you in the audience who need to apply your imagination to what you are witnessing to give it that added revelatory quality for your own purposes on which your pleasure and involvement ultimately depend. ‘The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them,’ as Shakespeare’s Theseus reminds us in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But the promotion of classical music LPs and CDs has involved a massive and highly misleading sales operation in which the public have often – frankly – been kidded about the nature of the best on offer and also about the compelling quality of what the enthusiast and purchaser needed to own. The commercial imperative dominating British theatre gave way to the war effort. Entertaining troops and building national morale demanded funding by CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts) which in 1946 Keynes converted into the Arts Council of Great Britain – so theatre, classical music and especially dance could briefly be enjoyed by people living far from London.

In London the effect of forty years of cheap international travel has been immense, and has magnified further the already over-weening role of the British metropolis into a status comparable with that of Versailles in seventeenth and eighteenth century France. Ironically Scottish devolution has if anything done further damage to the live performing arts, judging by Scottish Opera’s loss of its chorus and questions over continuing support for its orchestra. In London commercial theatre has seen the amassing of vast wealth, thanks to tourism. Yet no impresarios are putting on new plays in West End commercial theatres as they used to do week after week until the 1980s, and no provincial theatre risks performing anything much except safe classics and popular hits. Partly that is because of the musicals these days parked in the West End and what the profits from a tourist-dominated market have done to West End costs. But partly it’s because – away from the National Theatre and the Royal Court – there is no mass audience for spoken plays. And artistic policy at the National Theatre under Nicholas Hytner has been uncompromisingly commercial – geared to popular taste with West End transfers as a major valuable objective seen by many supporters of current National Theatre policy as a reliable way of maintaining the institution, its range of work, and its future health. Yet Ian McKellen has a point when he says that he and Judy Dench may be the last theatrical stars created in the theatre rather than by television or film.

British professional performing arts critics have inevitably been affected by this revival in the power of the almighty market. The outlines of the discourse to which they contributed used to be very clear. It is worth remembering how the critic Kenneth Tynan launched his career in 1950 at the age of twenty three barely out of Oxford. He published a book of essays, He that Plays the King, all about major acting performances, and won the approval of James Agate, the doyen of theatre critics at the time. Tynan was at that stage and remained a performer to his finger tips even if the reviews he received as the Player King in Alec Guinness’s Festival of Britain Hamlet would have put anybody off employing him on stage. Perhaps no two critics that matter are ever alike. But it is hard to see on what basis an interesting and youthful theatre critic could nowadays gain much experience of what the theatre at its best can offer. On the fringe, at the Royal Court and at the National there is a lot of new work. What is not there to a sufficient extent is the classic literature of English and European theatre which was always the mainstay of the repertoire, as Lindsay Anderson often pointed out, in association with the new in the repertoire devised by George Devine at the Court and Olivier and Tynan at the National Theatre in that crucial period of transition when the power of H M Tennent disappeared along with Binkie Beaumont and the Angry Young Men, almost all now dead, arrived.

Today, we have far fewer theatre and opera companies in the UK than exist in the rest of Europe, while we make far more of a fuss about countless different prizes and honours awarded to artists and performers, and our arts journalists and commentators go on much more about the ‘international’ quality of achievement in our live performing arts, than is ever made in other European countries. The lack of very many theatre and opera companies as established institutions whose disappearance would be inconceivable (the way you cannot imagine Vienna without the Burgtheater, the world’s largest theatre company) helps explain the difficulty we have in Britain finding people with the right sort of experience to run the few theatre and opera companies that we do have. And the attention the British honours system gives to the arts has no equivalent anywhere else in Europe. It seems in Britain as long as we have a few ‘world-class’ star conductors, opera singers and filmstars we need not worry about our status and ability to compete. Gaining an honour in Britain is usually a delayed acknowledgment that you have already achieved serious status. Winning prizes may help writers sell their books, but rewards and citations in the arts mean little, compared with the life-changing benefit for a few years to a composer of serious music that stems from winning an award like the Grawemeyer (worth $100,000 currently). Will the International Opera Awards launched in association with the magazine Opera manage to carry conviction, based in the UK which is definitely not the world’s operatic workshop?

The reduced importance of the performing arts in Great Britain is perversely related to the immense importance of London as a tourist venue – since London, no longer an imperial capital but instead a magnet for tourism, has created with all those tourists needing diversion the chimera that commercial theatre is a viable model and capable of commercially generating immense wealth – though that lesson is completely inapplicable in the provinces. In addition the absence of proper responsible elected local government structures in Britain and the remoteness of funding for the performing arts provided by a metropolitan-based Arts Council means that theatre, classical music, opera and dance are simply not owned and supported where they need to be. The German model works, providing for massive employment of actors in locally funded and permanently contracted theatre ensembles. The vital factor in Germany is the federal constitution under which the federal government in Berlin of Frau Merkel as Kanzlerin does not spend all the money, but instead passes it down to the Länder (federal states like Baden-Württemberg or Thuringia or North Rhine-Westphalia) which in turn adhere to the virtuous principle of subsidiarity that has empowered a town like Erfurt to take control of the building of its own new opera house with vast workshops for scenery and costumes, larger than the Royal Opera House’s in Covent Garden, despite the deal it attempted to do with neighboring Weimar not leading to the intended result: namely that Weimar (pop. 64,400) would concentrate on spoken theatre while Erfurt (pop. 203,300) would do the opera. These two cities are a mere fifteen minutes train-ride apart. In the German-speaking world (Austria and Switzerland as well as the Federal Republic) there are almost 100 opera companies with choruses, orchestras, contracted company singers. Germany is the engine of the world’s opera. Local opera companies in small towns are full of excellent singers from Korea, Brazil, Ukraine, and of course they have no shortage in Germany of properly trained conductors. Equally there are vast ranks of potential Intendants and Artistic directors for these theatre and opera companies and orchestras waiting in line for their chance, whereas in Britain there seems to be a dearth of talent at the right level. But this problem with the performing arts is particularly British. The state in Germany, in other words the Federal Government, does not spend any money on the arts. There is no Arts Council, no national system. The funding of music, opera, theatre and dance is local.

By contrast the subsidy for the arts spent by the UK government, never up to much in Britain, is now definitively and terminally shrinking the worlds of classical music, opera, theatre and dance here. On the other hand, the range of topics which the culture pages in papers address has vastly increased – so our theatre or music critic is one among many other voices and downgraded as a result. The discourse about theatre has completely changed: the purpose of reviews, editors think, is so the punter can decide whether to bring out his credit card. No wonder classical music reviewing is treated as if it is a complete waste of space. The concert is over. What’s the point? It’s only worth writing about for readers who are thinking about music and its performance – and most of the critics of classical music have nothing to say about either the music or its performance, both of which are unsuited to comparative assessment. Most performers these days are good if not excellent, and the music is the music. It’s all out there on the internet or on CD. If there is something worth saying about it or about one particular performance, never to be repeated, you need as the critic to be one hell of an interesting commentator and to have the confidence that there is somebody out there who cares what you choose to write.

Some of the very best classical music conductors are precisely those who are also composers, bringing to bear a composer’s view of what performance is trying to achieve. It matters for the quality of the discourse in which criticism engages that some critics you read from time to time have also themselves been professional performers or creative artists. The performer (whether an actor or opera-singer or director) does not merely comment on received interpretation as critics do; he or she has known the responsibility of interpreting and delivering work to audiences. Speaking for myself I can say for certain that having been a professional singer always informed my response as a critic to singers I was reviewing or merely just listening to. When I hear singing I remember and I actually feel the physical sensations that I know singing involves – and I also experience by proxy the emotion involved in realising a song. Fellow journalists and critics who lacked my practical background were sometimes horrified by my frankness and conviction. Perhaps expertise about what was going on freed me up in responding so firmly (sometimes cruelly). But the public might be shocked to hear the uncompromising views singers express in private about each other’s work and competence.

London of course has acquired a mayor – in response to the perceived error of Margaret Thatcher’s infuriated abolition of Ken Livingstone’s fiefdom, the Greater London Council – though Boris Johnson is not yet in charge of London’s live performing arts culture as perhaps he should be. London does well with its two opera companies and its immensely rich commercial theatreland. But surely a city with a population as large as many countries in the European Union needs to think about doing even better by its resident population – rather than see theatre as so often an evening out for tourists. Berlin’s theatre companies are distributed around the city. Is it fanciful to imagine that Croydon could be improved by having a resident permanent rep company at the Ashcroft Theatre? Should English National Opera once again employ a permanent ensemble, why should it not perform, when the Coliseum is occupied by ballet, at the Hackney Empire or the Streatham Hill Theatre? Both locations have little live performing arts within easy reach, but lots of potential audience.

London’s dominance probably reaches back to Roman times. The issue is whether the restoration of proper financially responsible local government might mean that large cities up and down the UK could be tasked also with responsibility for the orchestras and theatres that a revived and internationally successful industrial mittelstand, with the exchanges of skilled people and managers involved, would come to expect – and even be attracted by? At present our budding musicians who want to become conductors gravitate to Germany for their training and often never achieve re-entry to John Bull’s island. The same is true of many of our singers with potential.

On the other hand it is as well to recognise that the predominant culture in Britain is overwhelmingly literary and private. We are proud to be Shakespeare’s country, of course. But we have never done much about the live performing arts with their costly, inconveniently social character. The British public gets culture now as in the past mostly from reading books, not from live theatre (however much newspapers go on about the wonders of British theatre). In fact theatre was slightly dubious – mere entertainment – in the days before sex and women’s lib.

The truth is that the commercial imperative which has always dominated the live performing arts (and painting, sculpture and architecture) in Britain was only kept temporarily at bay for at most thirty five years after 1945 – the brief halcyon and Keynsian period when we subsidised the live performing arts enough for them to be available to some extent to the masses living far away from London. But the challenge of the live performing arts is not just who will pay for what is there to be seen and enjoyed, but whether a country can afford to make the live performing arts so much the preserve of a privileged moneyed superior class without undermining its claim to be civilised as well as democratic.

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