I was surprised to find Janet Suzman and Patricia Hodge agreeing with Tom Stoppard's claim that theatre audiences have become less intelligent. Does this mean theatre audiences in general, or theatre audiences of Stoppard plays? As someone who considers himself reasonably intelligent and yet has sat through several evenings of Stoppard where I have felt that everyone else was in on the joke but me, anything that sheds more light on them is to be welcomed. Or perhaps they're not for me? Perhaps I'm really more of an Ayckbourn man: more concerned with the human condition than jokes about 17th-century philosophers?
Miss Suzman is absolutely right when she hints that people's education is not as broad as it was. They don't arrive at curtain up, or the start of the movie, as knowledgeable as they once were. BBC TV's recent adaptation of Wolf Hall is a good example of this, where much public criticism centered on audiences not knowing who everyone was. As a student of 16th century history, I had no difficulty in identifying the characters, and would have found a dumbed down 'horrible histories' type adaptation incredibly patronising: each to his own.
One of the main roles of theatre is to educate as well as to entertain, and perhaps this lack of education as perceived by Miss Suzman is, in part, due to the lack of theatrical experiences available to young people. The closure of many regional theatres leaves many arts organisations scrabbling for money. In many parts of the country it's a long drive to the nearest professional theatre; and yet it's a journey worth making. School trips to Stratford to see our A' level English text allowed me the joy of Miss Suzman's yardstick performance as Cleopatra in The Romans' season in the early 70s. This was part of my general education, part of my theatrical education, and stimulated my love for Shakespeare.
We need to make more theatre more accessible to more people so that they can understand the experience more easily. If we are going to do this, then surely the heartland of what is termed commercial theatre is not the place to start? I think the key word here is "commercial". Patricia Hodge bemoans the lack of classic plays in the West End. Musicals, she tells us are being shoehorned into playhouses. These very playhouses, of course, are private, commercial concerns, and though it is depressing when ticket prices soar to around £100 such as Bradley Cooper's eagerly anticipated appearance in The Elephant Man, if that's what the market will bear, then why not? These playhouses have to be kept in a good state of repair and that costs money. That money has to be invested by the theatre owners. Pop into the Grand Salon at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and take a look at the stunning refurbishment that Andrew Lloyd Webber has financed there. The number of philanthropists queueing up to save these buildings are few and far between. Theatres must operate as going concerns and attract an international audience. London's theatres bring around £100 million in VAT to the Exchequer but they can only do that when they are full - and full of shows people want to see.
We are lucky to have a great number of theatres in London such as the Royal Court, The National, the RSC, The Donmar, Soho theatre, the Almeida, Southwark Playhouse, The Gate, Hampstead, and many others who provide us with exciting new writing, alongside challenging reinterpretations of classic plays.
Thanks to the new cinema screenings' scheme led by NT Live and the RSC, outstanding theatre is now available in the home towns of many more people, and making the National a truly national theatre.
In the West End today there are currently 26 musicals, and 26 plays listed on www.Londontheatre.co.uk Now that doesn't seem like a preponderance of musicals. I'm also not sure there is much evidence of dumbing down. A blank verse play about the future of the monarchy, a high-tech movement-based video enhanced story of autism and its effects, and an upfront examination of the morality of identity in the digital world; all reasonably demanding, I would have thought.
It's absolutely right that actors should speak out on the state of theatre. Actors are at the core of all theatre. Around them, working with them, supporting them, and allowing them the space they need are directors, stage managers, producers, and a whole host of equally talented people.
And of course, there are also the actors who are creating for themselves the sort of work that they believe should be found in the theatre. The Tristan Bates Theatre in London's Covent Garden, part of The Actors Centre, is in the process of hosting First 2015 - a selection of solo work, much of it created and performed by actors. Actors who perhaps find that the sort of plays they want to see are not showing, have gone out and created their own work to remedy the situation. Part of The Actors Centre's brief is to encourage actors to create work, and to be proactive about their careers, rather than just sitting around waiting for a job offer.
And a note to producers: Janet Suzman and Patricia Hodge are both enormous talents. Any producer sitting at his desk with a script and a cheque book should get their numbers now. Then you would almost be certain to guarantee that full house the West End theatre must have in order to survive.