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Matt Trueman: Are we at risk of forgetting the plays of the past?

For the first time in living memory, there is more new work on our stages than there are revivals

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'Classics can be just as contemporary as new work'. Angus Wright and Lia Williams in Oresteia at the Almeida
© Manuel Harlan

The old jokes, so they say, are the best, and they don't make footballers like they used to. The chart hits of yesteryear mature into golden oldies. Former fashion trends take on a retro chic. Forgotten furniture becomes vintage.

What of old plays? For the first time in living memory, there is more new work on our stages than there are revivals. Earlier this year, a survey by the British Theatre Consortium analysing shows presented across the UK in 2013 found that new work made up almost two thirds (59%) of productions. That figure – and it holds pretty constant in terms of performances, audiences and box office takings – is the result of policy that saw a major funding uplift for new writing and new work under New Labour. It is, most people would agree, a mark of a healthy, vital and creative theatre culture.

But it does beg the question of revivals. Are we at risk of neglecting, even forgetting, the plays of the past and, if so, is that a problem?

As I mentioned last week, I've been reading Michael Billington's new book The 101 Greatest Plays from Antiquity to the Present. As its title suggests, the book has a historical focus, taking the reader through from Aeschylus to Mike Bartlett via England's Restoration and Spain's Golden Age, via Schiller, Shaw and Stoppard. (They do my tax return.) More than anything else, it made me want to get out and see these plays for myself – not least because so many of Michael's choices seem born of brilliant revivals, not just re-readings.

Would Ena Lamont Stewart's Men Should Weep have made the list were it not for Josie Rourke's acclaimed staging five years ago? Would anyone have thought Punishment Without Revenge so good without Bath Ustinov's revival. Plays are written to be performed and it is only by watching them, not reading them, that we really appreciate them.

That, however, depends on programmers and artistic directors. Yet slots for revivals are being eroded. Venues that have historically focused on classics, such as the Donmar Warehouse and the Old Vic, have turned to new writing as well, and, given reduced slots, the same titles tend to crop up again and again. The Almeida's forthcoming Uncle Vanya will be the fifth major production in four years – though I don't doubt Robert Icke will find something new in it. Welcome though the West End seasons from Jamie Lloyd and Kenneth Branagh are, the need for a crowd-pulling title exacerbates the limited range. (There are exceptions, of course: Peter Barnes's The Ruling Class being the obvious example.)

Don't get me wrong. This isn't a case of Pokemon-style gotta-catch-them-all canon-chasing – not least because the idea of a canon is itself so problematic. We shouldn't programme old plays simply to give them an airing, and certainly not to keep us jaded, theatre-addled critics happy. Theatre is a present-tense and public artform and, as such, it needs, if not direct relevance, then at least resonance.

However, as many a revival has shown – think The Oresteia, think A View From the Bridge, think Light Shining in Buckinghamshire – classics can be just as contemporary as new work, especially as directors feel increasingly free to reshape and repurpose original texts. Nor does new work have a monopoly on risk: reinventions can be just as radical and revolutionary.

At the same time, however, I'm torn. This blog is, in part, a mea culpa: when drawing up schedules, I have generally opted to see new work over revivals and head for the Royal Court over the Royal Shakespeare Company. That doesn't feel uncommon amongst young audiences and, I suspect, it goes for artists as well – in part as a result of the cultural shift from English Literature to Theatre Studies.

I wonder whether my generation is just more energised by new work than by revivals, but I worry what that says about us – whether that's a symptom of self-obsession, a need to see ourselves reflected directly in a piece of theatre and a dismissal of universal or fundamental truths. I worry, too, that it's a culture driven by novelty and so motored by the very capitalist conveyor belt so much of the work actively rails against. I worry, too, that it will leave great plays on the scrap heap, festering and forgotten. Our new writing culture would be the worse for that, since great makers learn from great plays, but so would our theatre as a whole.