The National Theatre’s production of War Horse has proved itself pregnant with as many possibilities as the Trojan Horse, although admittedly happier ones. Productions of the show are planned for Broadway and Canada, while American and international tours are both in the mix as well.
The show has already generated £13.2 million in box office income and 400,000 extra attendances for the National in London at the New London Theatre.
Who would have thought it? An adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s beloved children’s book conjuring up the horrors of the First World War trenches with puppets. I think it’s fair to say such an adaptation could have gone either way.
The research and development time allotted to the show during its genesis in the NT Studio was vital to its eventual, astounding success. And yet, this does not always bear fruit.
The NT’s annual report, published this week, shows that the average capacity to NT-produced performances in London in 2009/10 was 90%. High, but not as high as the previous year when they had achieved an average capacity of 93%. Moreover, the 2009/10 figures were boosted by War Horse in the West End, so the average capacity of the venues within the South Bank venue itself fell to 89%.
The reason? Last year’s Christmas spectacle family show, Nation. After War Horse, Coram Boy and His Dark Materials, Nation failed to cut the mustard with audiences and garnered a mixed critical response.
Was it disappointing for the team at the National after a run of Christmas crackers? Probably, but it is vital NT lends its support to these projects to see what sinks and what swims - otherwise, who will?
At a press conference earlier in the week, NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner said: “One of the things we enjoy doing now […] is a couple of times a year taking a punt on these big shows with potentially wide appeal. One of the things we are not going to be doing, because I don’t think it’s an option available to us any more, is responding to hard times by putting on apparently safe commercial repertoire. I don’t believe that repertoire any longer exists.”
Hardly a surprise, but a relief to hear it nevertheless.
Later, he had further words of encouragement. He added: “It’s another misperception that corporate or individual money, but particularly corporate money, trusts and foundations money, comes easier if you are conservative or safe, absolutely the opposite has been my experience. They want big, bold, risky, new.”
With the spending review that is expected to deliver heavy cuts to public subsidies for the cultural sector in just 12 short days, let’s hope he’s right.