Igor Toronyi-Lalic

Theatre closures are not necessarily a disaster – they offer a chance to remake culture

Theatre closures are not necessarily a disaster – they offer a chance to remake culture
One of Sonia Friedman's West End productions 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child'. Image: Simon Dawson / Bloomberg / Getty Images
Text settings

Theatre stands on the brink of ruin, says Sonia Friedman. And if you believe Twitter, so is my career. I'm apparently 'a disgrace to my profession'. 'Not fit to do my job'. I wear 'grubby' oversized T-shirts, dare to have 'an anagram for a name' (sorry for being foreign) and possess the face of an 'etiolated ferret' and, naturally, for all this, I should be fired. 

Leaving aside for a moment my funny name, ferrety face and baggy clothes (all criticisms not without some merit), what was my crime? To suggest that theatre being on the brink of ruin might not be such a disaster. That tongue was firmly lodged in cheek was of course wilfully overlooked. Hey-ho. This is Twitter. Leaping on the most uncharitable interpretation of a tweet is the default setting. Which inevitably meant that, according to one Twitter account, I was advocating 'children starve'. I can honestly say, hand on heart, that I've always been solidly anti-starvation of any kind. Adult or child.

My point, of course, was aesthetic, idealistic, at worst/best a touch Maoist. Even here, though, some were confused. How could an arts editor think it a good thing, even aesthetically, that a chunk of his patch goes under? It was a surprisingly widespread reaction, one that reveals a profound misunderstanding of the role of the arts editor, the nature of the arts and the depressing conservatism of English culture.

The arts are not supposed to be tomorrow what they are today or yesterday. That so many in this country sing to the tune of the status quo is grim and, for a field that supposedly prides itself on its disruptive, consciousness-raising potential, also perverse. The idea that institutions set up 50 years ago, sometimes 100 years ago, sometimes 300 years ago, are inevitably the ones that will make sense of the future is something that must at least be debated. Especially now.

Of course it's a very clever tactic for it not to be up for debate. Aesthetically backward arts corporations use the lack of debate about whether they have any creative legitimacy to entrench their position in polite society. If you attack them, you're uncivilised or uncultured. Yet the only truly civilised position is to attack them. To not is to risk a nightmarish future. An alarming number of people were shocked that I would knock a 'creative industry' that generates so much for the GDP. The day we start to value the arts according to the amount it contributes to GDP is truly the day we cease to be civilised. (Is the British arts establishment the last place on earth in which Blairism is still the house ideology?) The only art that matters is that which lowers GDP – and if you don't realise this you actually don't understand art at all.

There were some very strange tweets asking, without English theatre, what I would edit. I keep up with English theatre for my job and it's good to know your enemy but beyond that it features barely at all in my cultural life. In fact, disliking the crass legibility of much English theatre is a foundational premise of my being: I could no more be close friends with someone who genuinely likes English theatre than I could be friends with someone who likes Banksy.

The primary duty of an arts editor is to their readers. I'm aware of my biases and where my opinions probably differ from theirs and try to counteract this as much as I can. The job of an arts editor is not to like all art. It's not to coo over every last episode of Normal People. Few arts editors have ever truly understood or cared for classical music or contemporary art (two art forms that matter to me). Yet no one would think this disqualifies them from their profession. And it doesn't.

If I have a secondary duty, it is to art itself. To offer thoughts on what I think would be the best way to secure the most interesting art in the future. That may not involve advocating what has gone before. In fact that could involve overturning everything that has gone before. When asked in 1967 about the near impossibility of doing anything genuinely creative in the stifling environment of established opera houses, the composer Pierre Boulez suggested blowing them up. Today he'd be cancelled. But he was right then and he continues to be right now.

There's a strange timidity in the arts towards loss, failure, loose ends – both in a formal sense within works of art as well as within the wider arts ecosystem. All art must be kept alive – even if it's in an aesthetically vegetative state.

For someone who has little time for English theatre and its bleak little puzzles that, as I wrote on Twitter, make it feel like you're watching on expensive live edition of the Moral Maze – and without denying the obvious hideousness of the situation for the thousands of people employed in the sector – there is a real opportunity now to remake culture. On Twitter I offered the vision of a central London emptied of what has gone before. Of a rewilded West End and South Bank. Huge, cheap vacant spaces suddenly all opened up to anyone and everyone, with the true possibility of realising Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price's Fun Palaces, securing space for strange new hybrid art forms as yet unimagined, and crucially of starting again. Idealistic, no doubt. But if we're not allowed to think idealistically now, when will we be allowed?

Of course I'd forgotten that Twitter is today a forum exclusively for everyone's most saintly and dutiful thoughts and that flippancy and fantasy were strictly forbidden. My bad. Belly-rubs and head-pats only from now on.