NEWS FROM LONDON -- September 1996
Sir Peter Hall, first director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and second director of the National Theatre, now goes for the triple crown: From next March he becomes artistic director of the Old Vic, which remains under the ownership of Toronto's "honest Ed Mirvish" but will now have the benefit of a resident director.
Not that this is the first time the Vic has tried to lay down a policy. Some years ago, Jonathan Miller was given control of one of London's most historic and enchanting playhouses, only to resign after a year or so of disappointment at the box office. Since then the Vic has been a receiving house for everything from Porgy & Bess to Wind in the Willows, and there was even a time when it was thought that it might play resident London host to a succession of regional playhouses bringing the best of their wares to town.
But there has always been the feeling that the Vic, once the first London home of Olivier's National Theatre company and before that London's major Shakespearean venue, deserved rather more than a succession of random visiting companies whether from home or abroad. Accordingly, from next January, Sir Peter starts a five-year term at the head of a resident company of 15 actors who will perform one of the most ambitious repertoires in the country. There will be ten performances seven days a week for the first season of five classics and five new plays; a total of 378 performances next year alone, and it will be possible to see over one weekend five different plays.
Sir Peter will direct most of them, with Dominic Dromgoole (recently director of The Bush, one of London's most distinguished fringe theatres) as his assistant, working on one single set with state-of-the-art lighting to enable the quick changes between performances. Ticket prices will be held as low as possible, and we shall have to wait until October for further details of which plays are actually envisaged. Financially, Hall and Mirvish will be joined by Bill Kenwright, currently producing Hall's An Ideal Husband on Broadway, so the omens are about as good as they can be in a currently deeply unsettled West End economy.
As he prepares to inherit the National Theatre next year, director Trevor Nunn has just published a devastating attack on the general quality of London theatre and the environment surrounding it: "It's not a good time to be in England: swinging London has been replaced by stinking London: ten London theatres are dark, even the National has given one of its stages over to a straight month-long run of A Little Night Music, the Royal Opera House and Sadlers Wells are both closed for rebuilding and the Royal Shakespeare Company is pulling back from the Barbican for the summer months. . . pusillanimous managements are presenting entirely unnecessary revivals of boulevard bonbons in a vain attempt to re-attract yesterday's audiences, and for the public's sake let there be fewer superficial, camp entertainments masquerading as the post-modernism so fashionably acceptable to a voguish critical coterie. . ." Now, directors of the National Theatre, even directors-elect, are not supposed to bare their innermost souls in quite so spectacular a fashion. No sooner were the collected thoughts of Nunn in print than the Society of West End Theatre was leaping up and down with its usual announcement about how this August was really no worse than most when you consider the transport strikes and the hot weather and the Olympics and the EuroFootball and a million other traditional alibis.
Sir Cameron Mackintosh riposted that all his five blockbuster musicals were doing better business this summer than last, and though producer Robert Fox joined Nunn's side with the observation that the real problem was the greed of theatre owners demanding high rents and therefore keeping out adventurous little shows, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber took the view that the real problem was in precisely Nunn's area -- subsidized companies creaming off the best of the talent and the available Lottery and government cash, leaving commercial producers struggling against unenviable odds. Nunn's ultimate suggestion, that the homeless should be given jobs cleaning the streets on which they have to live, is unlikely to lead to much more than howls of socialist outrage about a class war.
The last word, at least for the time being, went to a lady from the London Tourist Board who noted that this summer's tourist figures are thus far eight percent up from 1995; how many of those were actually still going anywhere near a theatre she had not discovered. Like the new Nunn National Theatre and hopefully Hall's Old Vic, this one will run and run.