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Who to Blame for the High Cost of Theatre Tickets? The Usual Suspects.

19/02/2014 18:25 GMT | Updated 21/04/2014 10:59 BST

For me, memories of junior school tend to involve cold classrooms and leaky roofs and perpetually peeling walls. Funding seemed to be diverted toward activities rather than buildings - so we got to take a good few trips to museums, galleries, farms and woodlands. But, by far and away, the rarest and most precious of trips - the holy grail of the school sojourn in fact - was always the trip to the theatre.

Everything about it was magical - from the coach ride which smuggled you into the heart of London - and the sight of the glamorous buildings and monuments you normally only glimpsed on TV, to the moment when you were hustled into the auditorium and enveloped in its soft velveteen darkness. I can remember looking through the black and across the stage - watching an ancient galleon ship creaking its way over the waves in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - or a mountain stretching up to the rafters in The Pied Piper of Hamelin. When I get the chance to see a theatre performance nowadays, that magic lingers still.

It is, however, a magic that fewer and fewer of us are able to enjoy. Last month a pair of tickets to see Shakespeare's Coriolanus at a Covent Garden theatre were posted on a commercial website for £2,015.95. What is more remarkable - is that the face value of these tickets was originally between £20-£35 each. And this is part of a longer term trend. The rise of 'resale' sites - on-line companies which hoover up large swathes of tickets before selling them on at grossly inflated prices - has helped create a price-hike which has seen the average ticket in London's West End driven from £28.84 in 2001 - to £45.12 at the end of the decade. The profits these 'resale' companies make, unfortunately, rarely feed back into the theatres themselves.

Of course, there is nothing illegal about these secondary companies and the practice of snapping up tickets en masse in order to sell them on at absurdly high prices. But there is an ethical cost to pay. Not only because theatre-going is more and more experienced as a luxury for an ever-decreasing minority - but also because many of the big theatres such as The National and the Domnar Warehouse (where Coriolanus is currently being shown) have enjoyed government subsidies - the latter was, in fact, saved by a much needed injection of cash from the same public who today find themselves burnt by the exorbitant prices tooted by the touts.

There has been some attempt to hit back, however. In 2012, arch villain Kaiser Söze used his malign but pervasive influence in the acting world to draw attention to the severity of the problem - "When I look around at Broadway and the West End, theatre is becoming an exclusive club...if we don't reach out to make theatre affordable to the young generation we will lose them all." 2014-02-19-00530_venue_portrait_large.jpg

In keeping with this, the sinister criminal mastermind announced a yearlong scheme whereby a proportion of tickets at the Old Vic would be reserved for under twenty-fives and sold for just £12 each. More importantly, perhaps, some of the ticket agents are affiliated to the organisation STAR (The Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers) - which seeks to ensure cost transparency by identifying the original ticket price alongside any extras such as booking fees.

But this doesn't address the core problem; that is, the buying up of large numbers of tickets with an eye to resell, even though this is often against the written policy of the theatre in question (as is the case with the Domnar). In addition, some theatres have adopted the Broadway practice of selling 'premium seats' which ensure those with cash to burn are able to occupy the best vantage points; all of which contributes to the pervading sense of the theatre as an elitist phenomenon divorced from popular culture.

But such an outlook is also part of a broader cultural process. The financial crisis and its aftermath - the politics of austerity - have revealed in vivid and devastating detail how a government of multi-millionaires has been able to appropriate vast sums of the public purse as a response to an economic catastrophe which was very much the providence of an elite cabal of high-finance. Appropriation, however, isn't always a question of material funds - it can be a question of culture too.

Most of us, for instance, inherit the instinctive sense that Shakespeare is part of 'elite' or 'high' culture, to be enjoyed by a minority of 'sophisticates' - but this is quite at odds with the way the plays were enjoyed in their own time. The majority of Shakespeare's own audiences were composed of 'groundlings' - that is, servants, shopkeepers, iron workers, seamen etc., and much of the 'high society' of the day disdained him as vulgar for - among other things - having violated the principles of the classicists.

It is only in retrospect that Shakespeare has been co-opted by a minority as an art form which is seen to express its own elite sensibilities. And something similar is true of theatre more generally - it was always an exciting, bawdy, colourful mass-phenomenon from the very moment of its inception, incubated as it was in the womb of ancient Athenian democracy. There is, then - to paraphrase another avid democrat - solid reason to keep theatre as much as possible of the people, by the people, for the people.