Today’s eerie silence was in contrast to the rambunctious heckling taking place at the Young Vic theatre last week, packed to the rafters as it was with members of the devastated theatre community (from drama students to superstars such as Kevin Spacey and Sir Ian McKellen). Equity, the actors’ union, had invited Arts Council chief Peter Hewitt along to try and justify the actions of his organisation – and you had to hand it to him, he was brave to show up at all. Such was the anger, despair and confusion in that room last Wednesday that persona non grata Hewitt was forced onto the back foot. Raising his voice belligerently and jabbing his fingers like a lying politician under fire in the House, Hewitt was nevertheless powerless to dispel the implications that he was running an arrogant organization of questionable integrity that was micro-managed to the point of ridicule; held deliberately few theatre professionals in its board of ‘consultants’; operated under a cloud of totally inexcusable secrecy; and had, with its embrace of trendy devised/physical theatre and street drama, pushed traditional, text-based work completely off the agenda.
Indeed, there was little he could say in his defence. I am certain that not a soul in that theatre last week or in Piccadilly Circus today would question Hewitt’s article of faith that ‘an independent Arts Council must be free to make choices’ about the organisations it supports. Of course cultural institutions ‘failing to deliver’ should have their funding called into question. But what is ‘delivering’, in this sense, actually supposed to mean? Our new, remarkably beneficent Culture Secretary James Purnell made a big hoo-hah about ‘excellence’ when he directed that much-needed fifty million towards the arts. But when it comes to theatre, what on earth, pray, is ‘excellence’?
Let’s just be, like, really radical for a moment and suggest that excellence might be, say, putting on plays in a room with a stage in it that lots and lots of people go to see and enjoy. That would seem a pretty good start – but wait a minute, that’s exactly what the doomed Orange Tree and Bush Theatres (to name but two) do, year after year! Both are, by any sane person’s criteria, demonstrably centres of excellence. Guardian drama critic and theatre historian Michael Billington recently called the Orange Tree ‘indispensable’ and points out that it ‘unearths more buried treasure than the National Theatre’. Josie Rourke, artistic director of the Bush, one of Britain’s most treasured crucibles of new writing, made the shocking revelation that, having immediately applied for Freedom of Information documents after receiving the bad news just before Christmas, her team discovered that many of the figures the Arts Council had factored into their decision to cut Bush funds were in fact plain wrong. The announcement that in some cases they had under-recorded Bush audience numbers by two-thirds drew a horrified gasp from the Young Vic audience. As anybody who’s ever tried to book tickets at the Bush will know all too annoyingly well, it’s usually impossible – because the shows are so good they invariably sell out.
So what’s really going on here? Who, and what, is behind these spurious-seeming cuts that have been shrouded in secrecy and executed in such a way that Hewitt’s ACE looks like the worst sort of bully: a cowardly one. It would be a tragedy for London if either the Bush or Orange Tree were to close, but the city, rich as it is in other flourishing theatres, would cope. But what of Exeter’s Northcott Theatre, or Derby’s Playhouse, or all the other local theatrical centres whose futures are now in serious jeopardy? The strangling of British regional theatre in the 1980s and 1990s was one of the most grievous social experiments in recent memory, leaving a cultural vacuum inside many British communities that has not been easy to fill. God forbid we should be about to watch it happen again.
To join the protestors against these secretive and unexplained cuts to some of Britain’s best-loved theatres at a time when the Arts Council has been given extra public money, please sign the petition on the No 10 website at http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/Stop-the-Cull/.