On Sunday night I flew back from New York in Virgin’s economy class, tightly squeezed into an upper deck corner of the 747 (but at least I was against a window, so had a little room to breathe). The front of the same part of the plane is upper class, so the two exist side-by-side: the haves and the have-nots.
But because I fly so often, I am also at least treated to Gold card executive status at the airport, where I have priority check-in and the use of the Upper Class lounge. It’s only when you get onto the plane itself that the cold douche of reality (as former Evening Standard theatre critic Nicholas de Jongh put it in his play Plague Over England) sets in and you are relegated to your ‘proper’ place.
Just the other day, David Hare — who no doubt knows a thing or two about flying Upper class, I’m sure, married as he is to Nicole Farhi — was pronouncing to The Guardian that there are two tiers of British theatre, too: “What’s happening in the theatre is what’s happening in the rest of society - there’s a club class and an economy class. You have extremely prosperous boutique theatres, which are in public/private partnership in inner London, which are very successful at raising sponsorship. Then there’s economy-class theatre, which is finding it much tougher, and that’s mainly in the regions where people are not able to get that level of subsidy.”
This boutique phenomenon is epitomised by the Donmar Warehouse, whose own brand has become so successful that it draws sponsors like moths to a flame: successful people want to mix with successful people, and the star power it attracts is particularly appealing, too. (It’s also a good way to guarantee tickets to its sell-out shows). In a recent interview in the Evening Standard with Josie Rourke and Kate Pakenham, the Donmar’s new artistic and executive directors respectively, Nick Curtis wrote, “Rourke is keen to serve the Donmar’s core audience, as Pakenham is keen to maintain the ‘family’ of sponsors and individual philanthropists who augment its box office takings and roughly £500,000 annual subsidy.”
As David Hare goes on to say, “The work of so many theatres now is centred around going into city boardrooms to get people to sign cheques. The Bush has gone from being a room over a pub to being a larger theatre which will have to have a public relations department, a development department - it’s gone club class.”
But that also implies a degree of exclusivity, too — not just of bringing the big bucks in, but also keeping the riff-raff out. The easiest way to do this is to price them out, of course; and when the Bush’s new artistic director Madani Younis recently announced his inaugural season that kicks off in April, I was astonished to see that the new regular price for tickets of £24. (By contrast, plays at the old Bush Theatre on Shepherd’s Bush Green used to be a far more affordable £15).
I realise that costs go up, and the Bush — unlike other fringe theatres — actually pays actors, so ticket prices have to increase. But they’ve vastly increased their potential capacity and therefore earning power, so perhaps the price needn’t have gone quite so unappealingly high; those prices, too, will consciously exclude a large slice of the potential local audience, never mind one who is going to travel to this grimy corner of west London from elsewhere. Faced with the choice of £12 tickets at the National, say, as part of the annual Travelex £12 season, or double that price at the Bush, I’d hazard a guess that lots of people might choose the National.
But then playwright Simon Stephens recently told Theatrevoice that as the recession bites, so audiences have become more conservative. “”I think people’s taste for theatre, in the past three years, has shifted more towards the commercial and the accessible,” he says, comparing and contrasting the edginess of say, Blasted and Shopping and Fucking, with the more accessible Jerusalem, Enron and One Man, Two Guvnors.
Sales for Stephens’s own The Trial of Ubu at Hampstead Theatre have, he admitted, been “really poor” — one Saturday night, which coincided with a snowfall, saw just 54 people in the 277-seater house. I could have predicted that, even without snowfall; tickets are £29 on a Saturday night, which makes it a tough sell, particularly for an experimental piece like this. But Stephens asserts the right to make work that no one wants to see: “It’s urgent that state-subsidised theatres continue to stage work that is not going to find an audience … that’s what state subsidy is for.”
Mark Ravenhill, meanwhile, tells the Guardian that commerce is now prized over art. “When I started working in the theatre in 1987, artistic directors used to programme plays knowing they wouldn’t find an audience because they believed in them heart and soul. I haven’t heard anyone say that for the past 10 or 15 years. Now the discussion is: ‘Is this going to transfer to the West End?’ And theatres measure their success in bums on seats to justify their subsidy: “If a theatre is being subsidised, now you need to get in as many people as you possibly can and make sure they’re as diverse as you can. You’re being elitist if you put on something that plays to a house that’s 20% full. Everything we put on is supposed to be for everybody, but most great plays aren’t for everybody.”
The trouble is that, if subsidised theatres like the Bush and Hampstead push out their audiences by a combination of excessive prices and difficult programming, they’ll be producing art that is for nobody but themselves. And as Steve Marmion, artistic director of Soho Theatre, put it so neatly recently to The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner, “Art is pointless without an audience. Unless it’s a two-way process and you make work with your audience in mind, it is just an act of masturbation.”