Arts feature

Polly Teale interview: Cuts are making the theatre ‘a place where you can only survive if you are from a privileged background’

But the good-natured director’s endorsement of Ed Miliband wouldn't fill you with confidence

24 May 2014

9:00 AM

24 May 2014

9:00 AM

I spend an hour with the theatre director Polly Teale. She’s 50ish with a tall, willowy physique and strong, aquiline features. Her hair is arranged in a combed bob whose flicky fringe overhangs her bright, deep-set eyes. She’s easy-going and so good-natured that at one point she asks me about myself — a courtesy few interviewees extend to journalists. But she’s focused, almost obsessively, on her current job and she steers all my questions back to her upcoming production of Bakersfield Mist, by the LA writer Stephen Sachs.

The story has elements of mystery, comedy and class war. It’s set in a trailer park in Bakersfield, a ruined backwater 60 miles from LA, whose name is shorthand in America for ‘the scrapheap’. The story features a jobless barmaid, Maude, who invites a top New York art critic, Lionel, to assess the provenance of a thrift-store painting that she believes is a Jackson Pollock masterpiece. Both characters are carrying baggage. Maude’s connection with the painting turns out to be more personal and significant than first appears. And Lionel has yet to recover from a professional crisis 30 years earlier when he convinced his backers to blow millions on a work that turned out to be fake.

‘Like Lionel,’ says Teale, ‘we make all sorts of assumptions about Maude very quickly. The play challenges all our prejudices about what is and isn’t of value. It’s very much about two characters from different worlds, completely different realities, and the collision of those worlds.’

Lionel is played by Ian McDiarmid. Kathleen Turner, returning to the West End after winning awards in 2006 for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, stars as Maude. ‘It’s very exciting,’ says Teale, ‘to have a brand-new play in the West End, and at the centre of it is this woman who’s underclass, if you like, of a certain age, and possibly alcoholic. She’s an unlikely heroine but there’s something very passionate about her.’

The play is extremely funny, she assures me. ‘Both characters have a razor-sharp wit. That’s their survival strategy. A lot of the comedy comes from them using humour as weapons against each other. They push each other to articulate things they’ve never expressed before and in the course of the action it’s almost as though they’re forced to confront all the unresolved relationships of their past, the trauma, the big seminal events, all of that. And they find themselves telling a complete stranger things they’d never revealed before. At the end we’re looking at very different people, both carrying huge wounds they’ve been hiding. Gradually their armour is pulled off.’

She stresses that the script offers more than just a psychological spat between two eccentric loners. It has political resonance.

‘Especially at the moment,’ she says, ‘when we’re seeing such a rift between rich and poor. And that gap is getting wider. It investigates the damage that that does to those at the bottom of the pile, but also to those at the top. Lionel arrives in a limousine with all the accoutrements of power: expensive suit, briefcase. And that too is a prison, a gilded cage. And he’s using all that stuff to protect himself and his status. And that’s very much relevant now, the sense that those who have the most haven’t been affected by the recession, with interest rates low and labour cheaper. But the people at the bottom are those who suffer most. And the housing thing. If you were lucky enough, 15 years ago, to have a house in London worth £500,000, you now have a house worth £2 million. And you’ve done nothing to earn that privilege other than living in a beautiful house. And that does seem shocking, that does seem criminal. And for people trying to get on to the bottom of the ladder, it’s almost impossible.’

I ask about her early career. She studied drama at Manchester where she began to write and direct. After moving to London she mounted ‘profit-share’ productions on the fringe — ‘it was a euphemism meaning no one got paid anything’. She supported herself by working as an usherette in a Covent Garden cinema. ‘A rather brilliant job because the film is on for 90 per cent of the time, so if you want to read or write, you literally spend most of your time just sitting outside.’ Then she did a series of projects at the NT studios, ‘which became a kind of home for a while’. After sending a flattering letter to Nancy Meckler, co-founder of Shared Experience, she was given an interview which led to her being hired on the spot as Meckler’s co-director. ‘I often look back now and say how lucky was I!’

Today, she fears that cuts to arts budgets are making the theatre ‘a place where you can only survive if you are from a privileged background’.

I ask if she has a solution to this ‘rift between rich and poor’. To my surprise, she suggests private munificence. She confesses to a weakness for the reality show The Secret Millionaire, which promotes the virtues of top-down philanthropy. ‘There’s something really powerful about the basic premise that the millionaires find that this process of connecting with people, and giving them something that will be of use, is incredibly profound. It’s what we all want.’

Since she calls the ownership of a £2 million property ‘shocking’ and ‘criminal’, I assume she’s on the left of the political rainbow, and I ask her to predict the outcome of the next election. She offers a meandering summary of her hopes and misgivings, which I reproduce below, word for word, because its hesitations and circumlocutions are unexpectedly revealing. First, though, she asks me to reply to my own invitation.

‘It feels a bit 1992ish,’ I say, ‘Kinnock ahead, Major snuck in.’

‘I know,’ she agrees, ‘that’s the worry. That it ends up, yeah. I know…’ [Long pause] ‘And Miliband, much as I, in many ways, you know, think he, you know, I think he certainly has integrity but there is this problem, isn’t there, in this day and age, that somehow we need him to be photogenic, and to be very, you know, and vocally he has this slightly strange-sounding very nasal voice. And it’s hard, isn’t it. You don’t want it to be about these things. But inevitably it is, isn’t it. Really superficial things can, yeah.’ [Long pause].

If I were Miliband, I’d be rather disturbed by that endorsement.

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Bakersfield Mist opens at the Duchess Theatre on 27 May.

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  • David William Lloyd Henham

    I like the article, sadly the arts have always, mainly, been a luxury for the rich to enjoy but ironically a creation of the poor. I being an oil painter know too well the difficulties in finding success and making a living from one’s true passion and gift. So many without true talent do so very well, and find success the minute they spring fourth from their art/drama college having had the best that money can buy. Those less fortunate in their education, but at the same time gifted, find that the struggle never ends. It’s the same for all mediums of the arts. I myself remain determined to make a success with my art work, but what a struggle it is when you are at the bottom not having ever had an education, parental guidance and encouragement, money and even sometimes homeless. I work so hard to pay bills and there is, often, nothing left for the privilege of canvases, frames etc. The idea of having a studio is a dream. I am so pleased there are still people out there writing articles such as this that address the real truth about what is so wrong about the arts.