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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Funding is for fools

By Norman Lebrecht / September 11, 2003

Weekending in the West Country, I ran into Sir Peter Hall in the arcadian foyer of the Bath Spa Hotel. ‘Why, Peter,’ I cried, surprised to find the grey eminence of British theatre in so somnolent a watering-hole. ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘Two months at the Theatre Royal,’ he beamed, ‘do come and see.’

What I saw was the work of a self-remade man. In his 50th year as a stage professional, Hall was mounting five plays out in the provinces without a penny of public subsidy. Happy as a sandboy in a saloon bar, he was free at last from political constraints to produce the things he holds dearest and most important, transmitting experience and enthusiasm in equal measure to company and audience alike.

The play I saw was As You Like It, featuring Hall’s daughter Rebecca as an over-assertive, velvet-voiced Rosalind, surrounded by a troupe of National regulars and – wonder of wonders – the Shakespearian debut of Eric Sykes, who holds what must be an unbreakable record for the longest running domestic comedy on British television, 21 years of midweek chuckles. Sykes, now 80, played Adam, an old retainer. ‘It’s the first time I’ve done Shakespeare,’ he told the local paper. ‘I did it because Peter Hall asked me. If Peter Hall asks you, it’s like a royal command.’

That, if you like, is a measure of the man’s standing. No-one has done more since the War to build British theatre. Peter Hall invented the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960, redeemed the National from Laurence Olivier’s shaky start, renewed stagecraft at Glyndebourne, directed innumerable premieres and milked the public purse relentlessly. Hall was Britain’s greediest subsidy guzzler. He would insist that he was never profligate. Every penny he extracted from the Exchequer was invested in talent discovered and developed, tradition extended and enriched.

Leaving the National in 1988, he formed the Peter Hall Company as a flexible corrective. ‘I wrote down a list of everything I disliked at the RSC and the National and vowed never to do them again,’ he said. But he was running out of credit and low on steadfast friends. Left high and dry at the Old Vic in 1998 when the Mirvish brothers sold up, Hall went on bended knee to a New Labour Arts Council that believed history began with the election of Blair. He was practically told to sod off by its chairman, the demolitionist Gerry Robinson, whose main contribution to British theatre had been the despoilation of drama at Granada, and hence at the whole ITV network.

Hall, shaken by rejection, reverted to core principles. Two years ago he came on my Radio 3 show to argue in defence of state subsidy, pitted against the dust-dry Thatcherite economist Sir Alan Walters. In the course of the discussion, with evidence of alternative funding sources flowing in from around the world, I watched his position shift from old-fashioned Keynesian orthodoxy to something more positivist, a realisation that the state need not count for much any more in the world of arts.

And that, philosophically, is where he stands now. Not a brass farthing of tax revenue went into his two-month Bath tub, neither into production costs nor into the theatre itself. ‘We get no funding,’ laughs Danny Moar,director of the Theatre Royal Bath, a gem of Regency vision and recent ingenuity. Moar commissions shows that draw good houses in Bath and then transfer to the West End and beyond. This autumn, Bath is bringing Pinter’s Betrayal to the Duchess Theatre and Beckett’s Happy Days at the Arts Theatre, both directed by Hall, as well as R and J, a Romeo and Juliet remake, which opened this week at the Arts.

As You Like It moves on to Stoke, Nottingham and Bromley before going to the United States. It should have come to London but the Hackney Empire has delayed its opening until January at the earliest, by which time Hall’s travelling players will have moved on.

The economic implications of this joint enterprise are every bit as as interesting as the artistic results. Two months of the Peter Hall Company cost the Theatre Royal half a million pounds. That money will be earned back at the box-office and on tour with interest and enough to spare for a new season’s programming. The stagings are simple, without film stars or fancy designs. But the secret of keeping a clean budget is the absence of overheads that arise from having to satisfy the pen-pushing criteria of an intrusive nanny-state.

‘If you look at most theatres,’ says Danny Moar, ‘they have two masters: the paying audience and the funding bodies. Look around on opening night and you can see very clearly which is which. We, in Bath, have chosen to be our own masters.’

And that is what Peter Hall has brought to the party. His damascene conversion on the road away from subsidy was the realisation that the state has become a burden on the arts. Set the purposeful clarity of the Peter Hall Company beside the lumbering bewilderment of the RSC. The unfunded group is taking major works to hometown audiences. The other is so bogged down by Arts Council coercion, cowardice and changes of policy that it has no London home, little self-confidence and no idea whether it is meant to be an ensemble of classical actors or a doss-house for television personalities.

Hall is not the first to discover the joys of self-reliance. Many independent theatres and several of our finest orchestras flourish as non-subsidy ensembles. The Academy of St Martin in the Fields won a Queens Award for Industry for the foreign profits it earned, as distinct from the lavish state benefice expended to no regenerative purpose by several of our larger symphony orchestras.

The way ahead lies somewhere between the total independence championed by Hall and the RSC's progressive subjugation to the pestiferous interference of funding authorities. The intervening options include private and corporate sponsorship; raising and lowering seat prices; and forming media partnerships to raise profile and reduce marketing costs. Technical stuff, of no general interest to the theatregoer. But taken together, they produce a subtler funding pattern than ever before, increasing the choices that artists can make in the presentation of their work. The agenda no longer belongs to the state. It has been liberated by Peter Hall, never again to fall into the lap of bureaucracies.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001