The theatre, long the training ground of British acting and the bedrock, in turn, of many an actor’s career, has hit a peculiar moment of crisis: a couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog that highlighted the challenges facing actors trying (and failing) to make a living in the theatre, and as one told me, “are quietly quitting… We’re losing a huge amount of talent because people are treated so poorly.”
My blog hit a nerve: one actor friend wrote to me to say my blog had reduced him to tears of recognition. “I quit my agent in February, much to their frustration, due to much of what you have written about. It is so hard and you are right on the money.” Or rather, not; we met for lunch last week, and he told me that — at the age of 35 — he was having to take a tough look at a life of just getting by, and having to constantly juggle other jobs to actually earn a living.
And in the midst of this, I also read an interview last week with Deborah Warner about her current production of The School for Scandal at the Barbican Theatre, in which Benedict Nightingale wrote, “Warner herself is busier than ever, but more as an opera than a drama director. It is, she sighs, so time-consuming getting together a good theatre cast at a time when all but star actors are ill-paid, being pressed by their agents to opt for film and television, and often unwilling even to audition.”
No one ever said acting was going to be an easy choice, but it looks like we’re hurtling towards a crisis where theatre could be left behind, in every sense. On the one hand, we have underpaid actors; on the other, audiences who are being asked to pay ever higher prices. (Tickets for Warner’s production of The School for Scandal — bizarrely being billed on the Barbican website as a “world premiere” — cost up to £50, which are effectively West End prices).
So this is probably a good moment to celebrate, once again, Nick Hytner’s single biggest intervention, initiated the year he took over the National, to make great theatre affordable with the annual Travelex sponsored season, that kicked off its latest annual season at the Olivier Theatre last night with Howard Davies’s new production of The Cherry Orchard. And while tickets are cheap (or at least cheaper than at other times of the year), there’s no stinting on production or casting values here.
I’d be interested to know what the experiences of the National’s casting department are (and there’s obviously an undeniable cache to working there still that must make it easier to find actors), but there’s also, I reckon, something else that makes it happen, too, that so many fine actors are routinely to be found on its stages. The National still pursues an old-fashioned policy of nurturing actors; it makes them feel wanted.
So although Zoe Wanamaker, for instance, can easily go off, as she did last year, to do a West End run in All My Sons, here she is back again as Ranyevskaya. Conleth Hill, who plays Lopakhin, has virtually become a ‘house’ actor here, and regularly shows himself to be one of our very finest, most chameleon-like stage actors. But the strength in casting here goes right through the ranks, from senior veterans like another NT stalwart Kenneth Cranham (who plays Firs) to Tim McMullan and Sarah Woodward who regularly work here and have brief but scene-stealing roles in this production. But there are also emerging stars, too, like Mark Bonnar, Claudie Blakely and Gerald Kyd, all of whom I reckon are destined for great things.
The National, in short, provides actors with a theatrical home where they are guaranteed good quality work and in an environment where they are both respected and valued. And you can’t put a price on that.