Walking through Theatreland on a frosty December evening, a sea of grey stands patiently across the road from me. I have a bus to catch, like everybody else, but I am not the only one who has stopped to stare. Just what is this large congregation of the elderly doing? A second glance and it becomes frustratingly clear. Programmes in hand, they are waiting for a coach to take them home from the theatre. I shouldn’t be surprised, for the average age of the London theatre goer is 52: As the internet continues to provide a generation with a world of culture available at their fingertips, it is increasingly easy to despair at the future of theatre.
The following evening, in a café adjacent to the Donmar Theatre Warehouse, I meet with The Guardian‘s theatre critic, Michael Billington, who has been critiquing theatre for over 38 years. A softly spoken gentleman, Michael’s passion for theatre is evident in his formality; his responses are so articulate they seem ready-made. It seems theatre’s questionable position in the cultural hierarchy is a subject that has troubled his thoughts before today.
“Technology is changing the rules, in everyday life and inevitably in theatre.” While the aging audience the theatre attracts may be evidence that theatre is struggling to keep pace, Michael is characteristically optimistic about theatre’s prospects. “Theatre differs from other art forms because it is live, it is relative only to those who see it at a particular time. Other arts, they are popular because they are instantly available.” If lack of accessibility is a reason theatre is failing to become a ‘popular culture,’ the National Theatre seems to have an answer. Having successfully screened Helen Mirren’s performance of Phedre to 280 cinema screens worldwide and 50,000 people, the National is writing a blueprint for the future of theatre. The intricacy of live performance remains, but by broadcasting the performance to thousands worldwide, The National hopes to make theatre more readily accessible, and as a direct result, increasingly relevant. Michael recalls his experience fondly; “I watched it in a Cinema in Chelsea and it was packed, it was as if you had the very best seats imaginable, at the front in the stalls, everything in high definition. It still had the danger of live performance. It was enthralling really.”
Michael admits that the audience in the Chelsea theatre was, “predominantly grey, myself included,” and that if theatre is to be a relevant branch of social culture, it needs to reach new audiences. “It is promising for youth. With Nation and War Horse the National Theatre is actively encouraging young audiences. There is the Travelex season and the Young Vic produces work by new writers and youth writers. Things are being introduced for change.”
But is it all a case of too little too late? A walk around St Mary’s University College Student Union revealed some startling truths. One sports student told me he thought theatre was unnecessary because drama was provided by Eastenders, and History had its own channel. The reason these opinions of theatre’s irrelevance exist? Michael places the blame firmly upon: “The cultural failings of the BBC.”
“There is a bias of culture which is quite frightening, it’s a result of the amount of exposure the X factor and Strictly Come Dancing receive, these shows are represented by the media as the heart of our culture. I am from an era when there was a weekly play shown by the BBC, this is where I saw my first (Harold) Pinter, The Caretaker. The student makes it seem as if nobody cares about theatre. I wouldn’t worry about this, you see thousands pour out of theatres every night.”
It is possible that all this negativity about the future of theatre is unfounded, but the fact theatre exists as a niche form of entertainment, firmly withdrawn from mainstream entertainment is inescapable. This is reflected in the lack of exposure theatre receives. Dedicated theatre publications are few and far between. Theatre reviews will have, at best, one page in a broadsheet newspaper, and no space is available in a tabloid.
“Theatre is marginalised in newspapers, even newspapers like mine, (The Guardian) which believes itself to have a heavy interest in the arts, it only gets one page a day at best. Again, I think this is due to a bias, a cultural bias.” The edition of the Mirror I am holding has seven pages dedicated to sport, not including the twenty page sport supplement that comes free in the middle. It has one half page review, not of a show, but of Kiera Knightley’s West End debut performance. All of this in spite of what Michael tells me, that, “More people attend the theatre than go to football matches.”
Theatre is in the middle of an experimental phase, with Shakespeare no longer dominating the auditoriums of the West End. Somewhat justifiably, Michael believes we are losing sight of the classics. The potential of the classics remains unclear to West End producers and the Arts Council England, but not to Michael.
“I looked at the Arts Council figures, and what I found astonished me. 42% of what is commissioned in London is new writing. The classics offer us a language, a dictionary that gives us an incredible insight into history. From language and the classics we can experience the lives of a past generation. We can literally live, if just for 90 ninety minutes, inside Sheridan’s 18th Century. You don’t get this anywhere else.”
Increasingly focused on new writing, Theatreland seems to be content sitting outside the realms of popular culture. In spite of the lack of mainstream exposure it receives, a recent article in Michael’s newspaper concluded British theatre was currently enjoying a, ‘Golden Age’. Box office sales are ever increasing, and there are several factors that contribute to theatre‘s resilience during the recession. “These big-budget musicals, they’re escapism, ninety minutes of not questioning society but escaping from it.” Whilst it is possible that theatre’s recent success is a result of momentary television exposure, (The popularity of shows like ‘How To Solve a Problem Like Maria and Any Dream Will Do’ have ensured the West-End shows they advertise have sold out well in advance of their opening,) theatre’s recent upsurge is also fuelled by smaller theatres, with smaller budgets exploring serious issues. Theatre has a use beyond the musical’s attempt at becoming popular culture, and this is where Michael believes its relevancy lies.
“Theatre reflects upon society with more accuracy and more detail than TV and Film are capable of. It’s also way ahead of the game. This year alone we have had the Power of Yes and Enron. Theatre is the first medium to explore in depth the financial crisis, both the hows and more importantly the whys. It‘s the same with the Iraq war, it was theatre, (David Hare‘s Stuff Happens) that first voiced its suspicions about the supposed weapons of mass destruction.”
The new writing boom and theatre’s increasing audiences are both reflecting the public’s hunger for unbiased information and analysis. Theatre is becoming increasingly relevant as a neutral ground to stage a multitude of debates. “Theatre allows expression that is unseen on television. TV is politically cautious, it has to be. Theatre has the freedom to explore in depth and say what it wants. It has infinite possibilities, and works with the belief that anything can be achieved.”
Box Office successes of 2009 exemplify Michael’s opinions. Even Nation, the National Theatre’s Family production is littered with a political subtext which highlights the challenges of living in a multicultural society. The Afghanistan season at the Tricycle theatre, Kilburn, is an excellent example of politically vital plays achieving financial success. “It came about way before television started making documentaries about our plight. It explored not just today, but the historical foundations of the country, it revealed a country that is unconquerable and it inspired numerous television documentaries. What’s brilliant about this season is it is being moved to America. It also did very well at the Box Office, Theatre spreads ripples, a play that starts in theatre has connotations that resonate in culture.” The season is an indication that, though not considered a popular culture, theatre remains vital to those who choose to let it. Television channels, (other than the BBC,) and film in particular have the capacity for extravagant, independent political opinion. As film documentaries and the personalities that deliver them become increasingly popular, (think Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11,) theatre has to confront an increasing necessity to deliver something more. “Theatre is alive in front of us, it is larger than life. It allows is to realise our dilemmas, and realise that whilst these dilemmas are personal to us, they are also shared with a large community. It is the community that only theatre can create that allows us to look at the nature of being human.”
The instant accessibility of the internet may not be a threat after all. Theatre can exist parallel to it, as an antithesis to the impersonal ‘tweets’ and diluted culture of ’YouTube’ the internet offers. “Without theatre we would lose the excitement of interaction. In a world where technology increasingly isolates us, theatre is there to be shared.” It seems theatre is destined to remain firmly outside of popular culture, unexposed and uncovered by the media. Between the sports pages, the celebrity gossip and the relentless multitude of TV talent shows, theatre is unrestricted, ambitious and moving with steady pace towards new audiences and a true golden age. I explain to Michael that at Twenty One years old, I feel isolated as a lover of theatre, that I often believe next to nobody even knows theatre beyond Joseph and Legally Blond exists. “I wouldn’t worry too much.” He assures me, “I think there are enough of us theatre lovers to form a substantial minority.”
If the internet has thrown us into the midst of a cultural revolution, Michael Billington and ‘The Golden Age of Theatre’ assure me that theatre will stand and fight on the front line.