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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Theatre needs a showcase

By Norman Lebrecht / March 11, 2009

Repeat very slowly after me: The – Theatre – Museum – lives.

Ever since the facility was shut down two years ago as a result of declining attendances in Covent Garden there have been twitches of hope that a home might yet be found for the nation’s glorious performing arts collection.

The Royal Opera House offered to house it, only to be thwarted by a po-faced lack of encouragement from funding managers at the Department of Culture. Then there was an offer from the Winter Gardens in Blackpool, kindly though misplaced. This was killed just before Christmas by the foregone conclusion of a ‘feasibility study’ conducted by the Victoria & Albert Museum, which curates the collection and will not let anyone else get their sticky hands on it.

As a result of these institutional manoeuvres London, home to the greatest theatre tradition since Ancient Athens, has nothing to show for it. Millions who come here each year for the stated purpose of seeing theatre have nowhere to find a context for their consuming passion.

Vienna has a theatre museum. Warsaw has one. So do Ljubljana, Oslo, Helsinki, St Petersburg. Brisbane, Australia, for heaven’s sake, has one. But London, where the whole world comes to get its theatre fix, has been left without a showcase for its 400-year heritage of show business. How myopic is that?

Next week, the V&A will make partial amends by opening a section of Theatre and Performance Galleries in its South Kensington building, just along the corridor from the jewellery exhibition. The V&A rather desperately needs a bustling new attraction.

Last year, it suffered a 15 percent drop in visitors. Just over two million people crossed its doormat, a third of the footfall at the world’s biggest draw, the revitalised British Museum. South Ken is revamping itself as London’s museum quarter for 2012 and the V&A is being called upon to show momentum to help justify the £35 million spend.

The Theatre and Performance Galleries mark a key phase in the V&A’s rejuvenation, a shot in the arm from the lively arts. The new galleries were still being hammered up when I took an impromptu tour with the curator, Kate Dorney, but it was abundantly clear on first impression that a good deal more thought had gone into them than was evident in the weary shows at the V&A Theatre Museum. There, everything was arranged with plodding thematicism – musichall to the right, West End musicals to the left, souvenirs at the exit.

What Dr Dorney has added is overview. The walk through her galleries is a step-by-step conspectus of how shows are produced, from creative spark to first-night ovation. There is a Shakespeare First Folio from 1623 and a prompt book of 1720 for Handel’s Radamisto, the only such artefact to survive from his lifetime. Lat-minute rehearsal alterations are legible in a score of Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) and Sheridan’s second thoughts are apparent in a draft manuscript of The School for Scandal (1777). This is art in the making, vibrant as you like.

Costumes are the exhibition’s eye magnets – anything from Dame Edna’s breakfast outfit to a minuscule tutu worn by Margot Fonteyn in Swan Lake, from Punch & Judy garb to the 1970 ‘invisible’ G-string – no visible means of support – worn by showgirls at the Eve Club. The sweatshops, the powder rooms, the quick-change corners, all are seen as part of the theatre process without harming the illusion.

The absurd is never far away. A silver hip-flask, disguised as a pocket novel, is what Noel Coward gave to each of his performers on the opening night of Bitter Sweet. A human skull, signed by the cast of a Royal Court Hamlet, was found one morning on the V&A doorstep. A monster rhino recalls a 2007 production of Ionesco’s play.

On the commercial side, an 1895 accounts ledger shows how box-office takings at The Importance of Being Earnest plummetted the night Oscar Wilde was jailed for gross indecency. Posters, placards and every other enticement are slapped around the walls. Any bare space is taken up with video relays of archive scenes or specially shot reminiscences by living performers.

It makes for a very happy hour of study and nostalgia and, admission being free, it is the best theatre bargain this side of the half-price ticket booth on Leicester Square. Kate Dorney has created a narrative structure. The rest is down to your imagination.

Prudent about visitor projections, the V&A expects 150,000 a year which is roughly what the Theatre Museum drew at Covent Garden in twice the space, but this number will rise when there is a complementary show nearby. Next year, the V&A plans a blockbuster Diaghilev exhibition, just missing the centenary of the Russian ballet company’s starburst over London in 1909.

All of this is excellent and exciting and entirely worth a trip down what will be the new pedestrian walkways at South Ken. What it is decidedly not is the Theatre Museum that artists and activists have dreamed up and campaigned for over half a century and more. What the V&A has done is to lump theatre into the ‘performance’ category, which conveniently embraces rock music and may be designed to attract a younger viewership. No harm in that. If Pete Townsend’s smashed guitar and the Ossie Smith jumpsuit worn by Mick Jagger draws in the Twitterati, I shall be the first to cheer.

The new galleries are an adornment for the V&A and a step in the right direction, but not far enough. The V&A offers a fixed display; only one small room of the show will be rotated, and that only once a year. What London needs is a dedicated space that celebrates the lively arts and is part of their environment, in or near the West End and involving live performance. It should not be beyond the wit or means of a Cameron Mackintosh or a Lloyd Webber, though the issue of creation is a civic one – a matter for the mayor.

Memo to Boris: Paris has a theatre museum. Vienna’s, which is brilliant, is in for an upgrade. London is getting left behind. It needs to shout its triumphs, or fail like Athens. When the Olympic crowds arrive, we must put on a show.

The V&A Theatre and Performance Galleries open on March 17

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

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



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