Regional theatre: the decade in review, from the Daily Telegraph
5th January 2010
Regional theatre – the decade in review
A spirit of resurgence mixed with ongoing uncertainty characterised the state of play in our regional theatres during the Noughties. First published in the Daily Telegraph, 5 January 2010
When I first joined the Daily Telegraph as its deputy theatre critic, back in August 2000 – after several agreeable years covering theatre in London for the Independent and Time Out magazine – ‘the regions’ were, to a large extent, a foreign country to me.
It’s a common enough assumption made by those in the Midlands and the North that those born and bred in the capital have ‘never been north of Watford’, one of London’s key satellite suburbs. In my case, that prejudice was – aside from the odd journalistic assignment – wholly correct. I was as much a stranger to, say, the lay-out of Nottingham city-centre and the location of its Playhouse as the average Englishman at that time was conscious of the structure and purpose of Al-Qaeda.
‘The regions’ is standard shorthand, in the media and, more grudgingly, among the arts community, for the area of the UK that is not London, although since devolution in Scotland in 1999 and the establishment of the Welsh National Assembly in that year, it has increasingly been taken to refer solely to England. It is sometimes regarded, to borrow from Polonius in Hamlet, as ‘an ill phrase, a vile phrase,’ in need of a more flattering alternative. When they took over at the Bristol Old Vic in 2003, Simon Reade and David Farr disdained the idea that they were involved in ‘regional theatre’, preferring instead the grander, European-sounding tag ‘National State Theatre of Bristol’.
But although it hardly seems adequate to define such a vast tract of densely populated land and the bulk of the nation’s theatregoing, taking in everything from major subsidised spaces to church halls visited by touring companies, it’s a phrase that is none the less useful – precisely because it doesn’t disguise the problematic, top-heavy nature of the theatrical and socio-political landscape.
Whereas it might make more sense to distinguish between ‘urban’ and ‘non-urban’ theatre, instead we accentuate the division between theatre of the capital, and theatre outside it. In the lumping together of a diverse range of activities under the umbrella term ‘regional’, we can discern a hierarchy of values that places London at the heart of the country’s cultural life – and the work carried on elsewhere as, at best, of local interest or in the nature of a tributary, feeding the greater entity. The idea that what is ‘regional’ could be of more integral and vital use to the nation than, say, the sharpest new play at the Royal Court is discounted in the very language used to identify it.
When I began covering ‘regional theatre’ for the Telegraph, the term itself had become synonymous with mediocrity, underachievement, decline and, to be blunt, crisis. Two decades of under-investment by successive Conservative administrations had resulted in declining visitor numbers, a haemorrhaging of talent and mounting financial woes. Within recent months, houses in Ipswich, Farnham, Leatherhead and Westcliff had either gone dark or ceased regular production. Many others – in a national grid of 50 producing (as opposed to solely receiving) houses – were only a few box-office flops from catastrophe.
The Boyden Report – an in-depth survey of the sector’s woes commissioned in the wake of the New Labour landslide of 1997 that demanded a swift injection of financial assistance – had prodded the Arts Council into action in the shape of a £37m rescue package. This was to be bolstered during the remainder of the decade by above-inflation funding settlements.
Back then, those battling to keep their theatres from death’s door expressed a mixture of acquiescence, optimism and apprehension at the set of conditions attached to the new money. The loosening of purse strings was accompanied by the stipulation that the sector must undergo a minor revolution. The rewards would go to those theatres fostering a ‘culture of innovation’, placing education ‘at the heart of their work’, addressing audiences ‘from a broader range of backgrounds’ and providing ‘a meaningful contribution to the life of the community in which they exist’.
Long gone were the pre-war and post-war glory days of the regional playhouses – in which, famously, generations of talent emerged through the ‘repertory’ system, with actors and directors committing themselves to prolonged stints in the provinces, where an ensemble approach to a diverse repertoire was the norm. And there was nothing on the table to suggest that this template could ever, or should ever, be revived again.
To cite three responses at the time: Bill Alexander, departing artistic director of the Birmingham Rep, had reached a dead-end in his struggle to attract audiences (even with a play as innovative as Bryony Lavery’s Frozen, which later went on to win a Tony Award, he only secured 25 per cent capacity). ‘I don’t know what to do,’ he complained. Dee Evans, then (as now) in charge of the Mercury Theatre in Colchester, was confident that: ‘If you invest in the work and it’s good, people will come’. And Simon Stallworthy, then director of the Octagon in Bolton, opined: ‘This is make or break for regional theatre. We’ll either come out of this as a life force or we’ll go under and disappear’.
Looking back from the other end of the decade, a number of things are immediately striking. One is that the age of crisis has not come to an end. In 2007, we saw the closure of the Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke as a producing house, and the abrupt closure by its board of the Bristol Old Vic theatre, ostensibly on the grounds of drastically needed renovation but transparently too as a consequence of falling audience figures. And the Derby Playhouse, unable to stem a decline in audiences, was forced to go into administration at the beginning of December, even though it has since re-opened under the city-wide producing umbrella, Derby Live. Because of rebuilding work, the Sheffield Crucible too went dark for much of 2008/2009. Looking ahead, regardless of which party comes to power, the prospect of ongoing enhanced funding for the sector looks less assured than at any time since 1997, such is the parlous state of our public finances.
That picture of gloom however needs to be weighed against the kind of good news that was scarcely apparent 10 years ago. In terms of capital investment, there has been a sea-change in improvements, although it needs to be stressed that much of that flows from the existence of Heritage Lottery funding, for which of course we have the Tories to thank.
In the past few years, we’ve seen the reopening of the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry and the unveiling of the Northern Stage theatre in Newcastle – enhanced to epic proportions thanks to a flexible design that allows the main-house stage to extend itself into the studio behind it. Newcastle has also benefited from the stylish redevelopment of its new-writing powerhouse the Live Theatre. In Northampton, the neighbouring Royal and Derngate theatres have been beautifully spruced up, their most eye-catching feature a vast new atrium that brings access to both under the same roof. Hull Truck theatre has also moved from its church-hall base to a sizeable new building in the regenerated city-centre. And the Leicester Haymarket has also been reincarnated, in a striking, albeit vastly expensive new shell, as Curve. If the redevelopments in Bristol and Sheffield come right, in part assisted by the fact that new artistic directors – Tom Morris and Daniel Evans – have been appointed to both, that represents a lasting improvement to the crumbling infrastructure that has been such a depressing feature of the sector.
Artistically, there are plenty of examples one can point to that suggest a renaissance of sorts has flowed from the greater funding provision. In general terms, one has seen the return of large-scale work. Where once playhouses struggled to employ more than half a dozen actors at any one time, twice or even thrice that number has become a far more common occurrence, broadening the repertoire. At Salisbury Playhouse, the now departed artistic director Joanna Read dared to think big with revivals of The Duchess of Malfi, Gorky’s Barbarians and two musicals by Howard Goodall (The Hired Man and Two Cities). Up in Newcastle, Erica Whyman has successfully demonstrated her epic intentions with revivals of Dennis Potter’s Son of Man and Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North.
Looking back, the three most remarkable success-stories of the past decade have been the rebuilding of Sheffield Crucible’s reputation under the crusading tenure of Michael Grandage (1999-2005), the turn-around in fortunes of the Birmingham Rep under Jonathan Church (2001-2005); and the prodigious wonders achieved by Rupert Goold at Northampton (2002-2005).
Grandage, a former actor, appeared to take it as his mission from the get-go that the Crucible should punch above its weight, recruiting some of the UK’s most feted stage actors to bring glamour and authority to major classical roles: Joseph Fiennes in Edward II, Kenneth Branagh in Richard III and Derek Jacobi as Prospero in The Tempest; the Jacobi-Grandage partnership continuing with Don Carlos (2004) which, like The Tempest before it, transferred to the West End. Quite simply, as one critic noted, Edward II ‘spearhearded the revitalisation of regional theatre’.
Church’s restoration of the Rep’s fortunes were along much more conventional, commonsensical lines – based on a determination to let audiences see mainstream work that it couldn’t be assumed to have seen already: Patrick Marber’s Closer, allied to Noel Coward’s Private Lives was his opener (ensuring audiences surged by 92 per cent); and his revival of The David Hare Trilogy was his biggest and most successful venture.
In Northampton, Rupert Goold, now the most feted director of his generation, announced his significant talent with visually and intellectually sensational productions of Othello, Paradise Lost and Marlowe’s Faust.
In each case, the aspiring artistic director has gone on to even bigger and better things – Grandage to the Donmar Warehouse, Church to work similar miracles at the flagging Chichester Festival Theatre and Goold into the West End and at the helm of touring company Headlong (formerly the Oxford Stage Company). The days in which working in the regions was tantamount to kissing goodbye to thrusting ambition are now over.
But in none of these cases could one argue that the revitalisation of the theatre in question was directly linked to a rediscovery of that theatre’s sense of its local identity. The re-opening and re-energising of a number of major civic theatres’ studio spaces – especially at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, the Door at the Birmingham Rep and the Studio at the Manchester Royal Exchange – has allowed greater opportunities for local writers, but in terms of making significant waves, there is little to report. The majority of these new voices are expected to bide their time, and indeed make their success elsewhere, before there’s any prospect of their being heard on the main-stage.
Arguably, the one play that made the biggest splash both locally and nationally – and which was absolutely rooted in the defining local issues of its day – serves to illustrate the disconnect between the regional theatres, struggling to stabilise after so many years of decline, and the rapidly changing nature of the cities they are supposed to represent. Bezhti (in Punjabi, Dishonour), written by the British Sikh playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, was met with vocal opposition and finally riots by Sikh protestors outside the Birmingham Rep in December 2004, forcing the theatre to abandon its run. Many characterised that protest as a naked assault on freedom of speech but the uproar left the lingering warning that regional playhouses might need to tread more carefully in future in dealing with the sensitivities of the new ethnic constituencies they were being advised, at a governmental and funding body level, to woo.
An admission of how poorly equipped regional theatres are to tackle the complex realities of multicultural life came in the wake of the 7/7 suicide bomb attacks in London. In Leeds, where most of the bombers came from, Ian Brown, artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, suggested in the wake of the attacks that he’d be reluctant to put on a play examining issues arising from this home-grown terrorism. ‘I’d be very nervous at the moment of any kind of writing that was inflammatory,’ he said. ‘It is really easy to inflame people’s feelings about lots of issues and religion is definitely one of them. You could really stir things up. The thing could catch fire very easily round here.’
Whereas 10 years ago, regional theatres were at a crossroads in terms of stemming declines in their traditional audiences, the challenge now is that – having shown that the faithful can return to the fold – they must reach out – and rapidly – to diverse new audiences. Whereas even as recently as 10 years ago, one might without hesitation have applauded the bold European programming of Hamish Glen, the new artistic director of the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry – whose opening mix included Brecht and von Horvath – nowadays his selection smacks too much of pre-globalisation interests and mono-cultural enthusiasms. With one sixth of the city’s population at the last Census in 2001 declaring themselves to be ‘non-white’, the need to undertake a shift in demographic thinking as far as artistic policy is concerned is greater than ever. That goes not just for Coventry but for all of England’s increasingly transformed cities too.