Class war on the fringeDate: 22 February 2012
The playwright Simon Stephens has complained that the recession has made theatre audiences more conservative, and he's been backed by David Hare and Mark Ravenhill expressing disquiet over feelgood fare rather than danger and experiment on the fringe.
Admittedly Stephens is a little singed by the recent experience of his Trial of Ubu at Hampstead, which has not gone down a storm with critics or audiences. But I think he has a fair point.
There are currently three productions in London which challenge, in a serious way, the aesthetic status quo of most London theatre: Filter's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Lyric Hammersmith; the Young Vic's The Changeling; and now a second Jacobean revival, Cheek by Jowl's tremendous 'Tis Pity She's a Whore at the Barbican Silk Street.
Stephens' Trial of Ubu was a misfire, but you can see that he's trying to do something different. His Wastwater at the Royal Court last year was similarly challenging, both structurally and in its content. And of course the critical consensus - as conservative in tone and outlook as at any point in the past 50 years - doesn't do very much to destabilise what David Hare disparagingly calls the club class and boutique creative world of the Donmar, the Almeida, and even the Royal Court.
The only critical objections ever raised these days to the vanguard venues are do with allegations of elitism, Hampstead lefties and non-Christian values; you don't get people complaining that there's nothing too riotous or intellectually subversive going on.
Like all arguments, there's a lot of grey area here. You cannot prescribe for a theatrical climate any more than you can predict a great performance. And we are living in nervous and non-revolutionary times: in newspapers, on television, possibly in the theatre.
But only the theatre, for instance, is discussing the issue of nuclear arms and the nonsense of the non-proliferation treaty, in the new two-part epic at The Tricycle, The Bomb, which has gone down as one.
Hare's main point seems to be that fringe theatres spend an unhealthy amount of time keeping their sponsors happy, and he's surely entitled to suggest that this will lead, in the end, to a dulling of purpose and safeness of policy. Sponsors are not the target audience of any good theatre: they should be the target!
There is nothing more off-putting than sitting at a first night at the National or Old Vic surrounded by sponsors congratulating themselves for being there. I didn't think Nicholas Wright's play Travelling Light was his finest hour, but the (mostly elderly) matinee audience I sat with last Saturday were engaging at every moment with what the play was saying; the quality of their concentration, if you like, made the thing better than it was. That's how theatre should be.
And then of course, War Horse at the National was anything but a safe bet when it started, and London Road in the Cottesloe was the most brilliantly innovative musical theatre piece for years. So any argument which seems plausible in general will often be stymied on the detail or even just the facts.
Has the Bush, as Hare suggests, really gone "club class" because it employs PR people and a development officer? We shall see, but it doesn't sound like it yet. And I've just been looking at the programme of the Young Writers Festival at the Royal Court which starts this weekend: plays, readings and performances by brand new writers with top class actors and directors involved.
It's the responsibility, of course, of the Court then to make a splash with any exciting new stuff and put it on the main stage. That doesn't happen as often as it should, but the artistic director Dominic Cooke doesn't need to be told that by us; well, not too often, anyway.