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Battling the New Conservatism

The Chichester Festival Theatre was in holiday mood with the opening of Trevor Nunn's revival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which plays there for just one more week before moving to the Haymarket in London.

A friend who lives locally, Tony Thorncroft, the former Financial Times arts editor, had seen a preview and had been surprised to discover that Stoppard's first ever hit was really about death. He'd enjoyed it, he said, but hadn't laughed much, and I think that's a fair summation.

He also said that Tim Curry was oustanding as the First Player but was obviously not all that well. So it has proved, with Curry withdrawing from the fray, his asthmatic condition exacerbated by a chest infection.

This is a great shame as the role needs the sort of lip-smacking relish that Curry must have supplied, as well as the ethereal dottiness that Graham Crowden certainly did in the first production at the Old Vic.

Neither quality, I'm afraid, imbues the performance of understudy Chris Andrew Mellon, and this poses a problem for the producers in London. Mellon is perfectly okay, but there's very little time for a replacement to step in, find his feet and open at the Haymarket in two weeks time.

The three acts have been split down the middle and it's quite a snappy production by Trevor Nunn standards, though of course the predicted running time of two hours, forty minutes, was far too optimistic (with a twenty minute interval we were almost hitting the three-hour mark) and necessitated a bit of a mad dash for the London train.

When the show does arrive in the West End, it will join Shaw's Pygmalion as the only play of any wit or intelligence in the West End, as Flare Path and Blithe Spirit are about to close, the first to make room for the Stoppard in Trevor Nunn's Haymarket season.

In today's Guardian, David Hare bemoans the lack of any new plays of wit or intelligence in the West End as part of his analysis of right wing art flourishing in right wing times. I couldn't agree more about this, and the explanation therefore of the success of the wildly overrated The King's Speech and the depressing triumph of Downton Abbey.

But the most important part of Hare's article, its essence, is the dismantling of the critical canard that Rattigan has been hard done by as a dramatist and has now come into his kingdom. His good work, as Hare says, has always been recognised, and it's not as if those writers who supposedly "displaced" him at the Royal Court -- John Arden, Edward Bond and John Osborne -- ever achieved a popular or indeed critical status to make him feel terribly left out.

The worse thing of all about the so-called Rattigan revival is the sound of critics using their obvious and historically inaccurate "rediscovery" of Rattigan's merits to somehow prove that they were right to dismiss the left wing playwrights who followed him.

This mood of crass conservatism in cultural commentary was reiterated in something Tim Walker said in the Sunday Telegraph last week, extolling Duncan Weldon as a West End paragon in carrying straight on with Pygmalion when Simon Ward withdrew and was replaced immediately with Michael Feast as Doolittle; this showed, he said, how the West End was superior to the namby pamby subsidised RSC, where Trevor Nunn delayed the Press opening of Ian McKellen's King Lear because Frances Barber, playing Goneril, had fallen off her bike.

It's difficult to square this idea of the wicked, indulged subsidised sector pulling a fast one and suppressing free comment (is that the same as keeping out Tim Walker?) with the reality of Trevor Nunn's career as an innovative and popularising mediator between that subsidised sector and the West End.

And, as with the Rattigan business, it almost defies belief that such out of date battle lines can still be drawn. It only goes to show that, deep down, there remains an innate hostility to the whole idea of public money being spent on art. If Rattigan and Coward got by without it, why can't Edward Bond and David Hare?

But Rattigan and Coward don't survive today without the talent coming from the subsidised sector. And any playwright emerging of comparable talent would not be (is not) first presented in the commercial sector. They need the Bush, the Royal Court or, as with Tom Stoppard back in 1967, the National Theatre. It is high time people grew up, or at least, as David Hare suggests, learned a little more of what really goes on.

More important than any of this is the excellent news that Roxana Silbert has been appointed the next artistic director of the Birmingham Rep. It's a massive job and a massive challenge, but her track record in new work, both inside and outside of Paines Plough, is second to none, and I'm sure we're in for some exciting times with lots of lovely left wing plays when the Rep is back in its new building next year. I'll send Tim Walker a train timetable.


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