I just read the “Telegraph” Review of the Year, 2013, with Charles Spencer on theatre.
Mr Spencer saw a lot more theatre than I did, and wrote about it better, but that’s his job. I mainly agree, Othello at the National was excellent. Much Ado About Nothing at the Old Vic was dire. I think he’s way over the top in naming the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)’s Hamlet as his worst play of the year, but it didn’t get into my ten best Shakespeare, so I kind of see his point. But the Old Vic Much Ado was incompetent in ways that the RSC couldn’t even envisage in its worst nightmares.
But this is where I really, really take issue. Quote:
Adrian Noble’s decision to move (the RSC) out of the Barbican without establishing an alternative London base was a terrible error of judgement, one emphasised by the fact that the company is now returning there with its much admired production of “Richard II”. Further productions will follow it into the City of London. But re-establishing a permanent London base seems an increasingly urgent priority. The RSC needs to be more than a provincial theatre.
Arrant nonsense. London-centric nonsense too. The RSC is without question our greatest theatre, and “provincial” should not be a sniffy put-down. Stratford is centrally located in the country a few miles off a prominent motorway junction. Draw a circle with a 150 mile radius from Stratford and see what percentage of the UK population it covers (including London) AND they are mostly connected to it by good motorway links.
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Let’s take ourselves. We live in Poole, Dorset, 146 miles from the RSC. We can drive it in a relaxed two and a half hours, all but the last few miles on dual carriageways. The National Theatre is 108 miles from Poole. We can do it in the same time on a Saturday or Sunday morning, but going home will be longer, often up to three and a half, or four hours after a matinee. It will also be vastly more stressful.
Then price. Our car will do the 145 miles to Stratford on the same or less fuel than the 108 miles to Central London. On a weekday, we have London Congestion charge, at £10, and well over £30 to park. Stratford is £5 to park for the day. Then take getting a ticket. An RSC Associate Member fee is less than half the National or Globe. Without becoming a “friend”, with priority booking, you’re lucky to get a seat, let alone a decent seat at any of our major theatres. If you don’t live in London, is it really worth £50 to be a friend of the Globe?
The National Theatre, South Bank, London
The London theatres get massive subsidies (especially opera and ballet). These subsidies come out of the national purse, but London penalizes the rest of us when we are visiting our national treasures with swingeing transport and parking charges. For the older visitor, bus passes don’t work on the tube. London residents get the benefit of priority booking (it’s worth joining the club), and also subsidised tickets (the Lyric for Hammersmith residents is a case in point).
London has the magnificent National Theatre complex, The Globe, Sam Wanamaker’s Playhouse next year, let alone all the commercial West End theatre and National Theatre productions in those dusty, cramped, toilet-less old West End theatres. Why does London “need” the RSC? Why, as it’s so hard to get seats for the RSC anyway, especially for Richard II, does the RSC “need” London? Is it for the convenience of the theatre critics? OK, star actors like the West End, but generally the RSC has kept itself free of the “star” complex and done so to the advantage of the plays. The RSC creates the stars of tomorrow, rather than feeding off the ones of today. David Tenant being a highly honourable exception. Why does the RSC need the draughty maze of the Barbican? Let’s treasure the “provincial” RSC, and with it the Chichester Festival Theatre, and Bath Theatre Royal, located where they already are. In the provinces, where over 80% of us live.
The Globe Theatre, Southwark, London
Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe
The underlying attitude is shown by Boris Johnson’s campaign to site an airport east of London in the Thames Estuary. Fine if you live in London. For all of the rest of the country, it means travelling either through, or around London. That’s why it’s a bloody daft idea and why Heathrow is popular. All the rest of us to the North, West and South (and there’s very little to the East) can reach it without going into or round London.
The Old Vic, London
The Young Vic, London
There were thirty years where our theatre-going was largely restricted to a thirty mile radius that you could drive after work … Poole, Southampton, Salisbury. We did Bath on Saturdays regularly, Chichester at 60 miles of good road occasionally. But Stratford, Bristol or London when our kids were young were major excursions requiring major arrangements as well as time. We now roam over a wider radius, but good theatre needs to get out and around the country, as Cheek By Jowl, Headlong and Propeller do on tour. The arrogance of sitting in London and saying “They will come to us …” is astounding.
Stratford is fine where it is. London has the Globe and the National (and opera and ballet and classical music). Don’t be greedy … sorry, even greedier. To its residents, London may be the centre of the universe. To the rest of us, it’s more often the fundament of the universe.
Chichester Festival Theatre, with The Festival Theatre itself and the more intimate Minerva has just been renovated, and now stands with the National and RSC as the three best venues in the country. Parking all days £4.80 (free in the evening) and 100 yards from the theatre. When they rebuilt, they increased the rake and doubled the number of ladies loos. It’s set in rolling parkland. It has great restaurants and cafes.
Chichester Festival Theatre, re-opened 2014
Minerva Theatre, directly opposite the Festival Theatre at Chichester with shared restaurants.
Nuffield Theatre, Southampton: not a beautiful exterior, but first rate stage inside and an excellent local “producing theatre.”
ADDED 27th April 2014
Shakespeare’s 450th Birthday Cake on the streets of Stratford, 26 April 2014
We were in Stratford to see Henry IV Part 1 & 2, another magnificent RSC production featuring Jasper Britton as King Henry IV. I picked up The Stage in a coffee shop and Jasper Britton was quoted, and I’m sure this is a distillation of a much longer discussion:
I’m not sure it (The RSC) can regain its legendary status. Kids in RADA want to do movies and television, and people in London think the RSC is at The Globe. It was a huge mistake to leave The Barbican. Being in the West End is not the way forward for the RSC. If they don’t find a new permanent home in London quickly, they may as well just become the Warwickshire Rep.
I agree that West End Theatre (where we saw the RSC production of Wolf Hall at The Aldwych) is not the answer. The Aldwych was far too big for Wolf Hall and from where we were sitting the actors were tiny, distant figures. We had no sense of involvement and thought it poor, while friends who saw it in Stratford all thought it wonderful. The Barbican is a far better stage, though an appalling ugly maze of a building, and out on a limb, away from the theatre clusters in Covent Garden and the South Bank.
But I repeat. They can fill Stratford with ease. I would say while they have actors of Jasper Britton’s quality on their Stratford boards, they are in no danger whatsoever of becoming “The Warwickshire Rep.” In two days, we chatted to people who had driven from Lancaster, Leeds and Swansea for Henry IV. In most cases. London would be more difficult.
ADDED 20th December 2013 (and on blog front page):
We were saddened by yesterday’s disastrous collapse at the Apollo Theatre in the West End, where in the last 18 months, we watched Jerusalem, Twelfth Night and Richard III. I’m going to repeat what I said in the “Jerusalem” review:
Like so many West End of London venues, the Apollo is a nasty grubby gilt-trimmed 19th century theatre. You have to contribute £1 to the restoration fund with your ticket. I’d rather they demolished it altogether. We were in Row R, in the most uncomfortable seats I’ve ever sat in anywhere in a theatre. They are low, there’s a step up for that row, making them lower, and at 6 foot 1 inch tall, my knees were severely and painfully compressed throughout. To add injury to injury, there was a pair of binoculars screwed on the seat in front. At £55 a ticket, the seats in that row are appalling, worse than the worst charter flight. If it hadn’t been one of the best productions of one of the most compelling plays I’ve ever seen, I’d never have survived three hours. Add woefully inadequate toilets.
I have long thought that these old West End theaters were a disaster waiting to happen. Let’s hope they ignore ostrich-head-in-sand pleas to restore it, and demolish and build a proper modern theatre instead. Leave the facade if you must, and take out everything behind it.
Vaudeville Theatre, The Strand, London