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Artillery Row

They’re not laughing now

Without taxpayer handouts, will the arts finally be forced to give people what they want?

At last, Freedom Day has arrived. Bring out the bunting, sound the trumpets, and kill the fatted calf. All of us can again leave our homes, where we have been anxiously lurking for the past 16 months, and walk mask-free and unmolested through the streets once more, soaking up the atmosphere of liberation. Forget VE Day or the World Cup final of 1966. This will be the day that every true-born Englishman, or woman, will be able to revel in their emancipation from diktat, and resume their lives once more.

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Unfortunately, as more and more details are revealed about what we can expect in this brave new world, the likelihood of any sort of normality returning is minuscule. Masks will continue to be de rigueur everywhere from Waterstones to the Underground, and the ever-rising rate of infection means that, bluntly speaking, if you haven’t been ill, then you can expect to get ill over the next few weeks, unless you have somehow managed a double dose of vaccination — and even that seems increasingly shaky as a means of protecting a nation. One might be forgiven for thinking that the current government — I blush at the audacity of my sedition — don’t actually have a clue what they are doing and have chosen an all but meaningless date in order to placate an increasingly angry section of backbench opinion.

It would take a Cassandra to prophesy what is going to happen to our cultural institutions

But at least the arts and culture will return to normal, will they not? I wondered last year whether Britain’s cultural infrastructure would be able to survive the spread of covid. Sixteen months later, it would be nice to offer a clear answer, but in fact it would take a Cassandra or Ezekiel to be able to prophesy what is going to happen to many of the cultural institutions that make up our great nation. Certainly, some would seem to be relatively unscathed. Galleries and cinemas have resumed business more or less as normal, choosing how many patrons to admit on any given day, and the hearty box office returns for blockbusters finally being released suggests that a pent-up nation is desperate to enjoy the likes of Fast and Furious 9 and Black Widow. But live performance, in all its many forms, remains deeply problematic.

Looking at the review sections of papers, it would appear that big-budget musicals and dramas are back in vogue. One can go along to the West End and see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella, enjoy Michael Ball in drag in Hairspray at the Coliseum or head further afield to Chichester and take in South Pacific at the Festival Theatre there. At least, this is the theory. In fact, these shows, and many more, are liable to be hit with last-minute cancellations because of the effervescent rate of covid. For some unaccountable reason, the disease seems especially likely to strike a section of society where its participants are famous for their tactile and demonstrative behaviour around each other. At best, this will result in the disappointing presence of understudies replacing stars, and, at worst (as with Hairspray) the shows will simply be cancelled for protracted periods while the actors and creative term are forced into self-isolation.

If this could be guaranteed to end in the space of a few weeks, then many impresarios and producers might simply grit their teeth, add the inevitable losses that they will face to the ever-mounting bill that they have already racked up, and hope that a combination of crowd-pleasing shows and goodwill on the part of audiences will lead to a full resurgence of live music and theatre later in the year. Inevitably, there is no such guarantee, and so it seems likely that many, especially elderly, audiences will be deterred from venturing into theatres that they view as potential hives of illness and infection, even if they have been double-vaccinated.

The National Theatre has prized the new and diverse over any stuffy notions of “the canon”

This too may pass. But the question then remains as to whether many of these fearful audiences will be especially keen to return to the theatres and concert halls after such a lengthy absence. A glance at the forthcoming productions at my hero Rufus Norris’ National Theatre indicates remarkably little that the traditionally well-heeled white, middle aged theatrical clientele would particularly flock to, unless one counts the forthcoming musical Hex, written by Norris’s wife Tanya Ronder: itself a clear example of meritocracy, and woe betide anyone who hints otherwise. Yet Norris’s regime has prized the new and diverse over any stuffy notions of “the canon”. If this offends the National’s traditional base, then they can go elsewhere.

I wonder if the cry that has gone up from artistic directors, gallerists, concert programmers and the like for years — that their audiences are too staid, stuffy and pale for their tastes — is now being answered by the roar of silence. I have no idea how commercially successful the indifferently reviewed new production of Under Milk Wood at the National has been, but I would bet that it will be attracting considerably smaller audiences than if its star Michael Sheen was starring in a truly great drama that fitted his considerable talents: a Dr Faustus or Death of a Salesman, for instance. Yet this would be too safe, and too obvious. It has, admittedly, been something of a surprise to me that an all-Welsh cast is now counted as a form of diversity, but every day is a school day.

There will be no more government handouts courtesy of Oliver Dowden

The old adage of “give them what they want” is never the best one. Even if I have complained before about the absence of fun and jollity to be found in contemporary theatre, I accept that merely pandering to complacent audiences is a poor idea. But the stream of provocation that has been directed towards theatregoers, in particular, for years has now met its Waterloo. There will be no more government handouts courtesy of Oliver Dowden, a man who gives the impression of being vastly more interested in the populist bread’n’circuses aspect of his brief (sport) than he is in the cultural ones. Theatres, concert halls and live performances will be on their own.

I hope, as a lover of the arts, that they survive, and flourish. But there is a certain piquant irony in how, after years of denouncing traditional patrons of the arts as an anachronistic relic of Thatcherism/Blairism/Toryism (delete as appropriate), it is their patronage — and shows that they will wish to offer this patronage to — that will make all the difference in sustaining the industry in the future. When the National announces its umpteenth revival of The History Boys or One Man, Two Guvnors, we will know that they are in truly dire straits. And I, for one, would enjoy seeing the expression on Norris’s face as he announces, through gritted teeth, that “we’re here to give our audiences what they want.” About time too, some might say.

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