David Hare’s notebook: The National Theatre belongs to taxpayers, not corporate sponsors

Plus: The forward-thinking elderly, and agreeing with a critic

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

The nicest day of the year was spent at Charleston in May. The Sussex farmhouse shared by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell looked splendid in the streaming sunshine. As a dramatist, I’ve idly disparaged bald and white-haired audiences. But as soon as I started speaking at the literary festival, I realised that everyone in panama hats and cardigans was way to the left of me. The first question was about my local childhood, and I said that growing up so close to the Channel meant that stories of people like Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf sitting on English lawns and hearing the sound of battle in the first world war from across the water had always moved me. When I added that you couldn’t be born in Sussex without feeling profoundly European — and that a historical hostility to Europe therefore mystified me — I was cheered to the rafters. An odd inversion of the expected state of affairs: the oldest generation is now the most progressive.

In France, where constitutions are taken seriously, protocol says that the director of the Comédie-Française is the 25th most important person in the land. At the president’s state dinners he or she must be seated appropriately. I had always imagined that the Poet Laureate was an official position, not conveying power, but conferring status. Apparently not. When Chris Grayling instituted his vindictive policy of forbidding outsiders to send prisoners books, he refused to take a meeting with Carol Ann Duffy. His motives were clear. The poor guy doesn’t have a shred of an argument and he can’t face expertise. But why, constitutionally, was Grayling allowed to get away with it? If ministers feel obliged courteously to take advice from the Queen’s son, why do they feel free to insult the Queen’s poet?

Further evidence that I’m going soft in the head is that I find myself agreeing with a critic. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw remarks that space films worked brilliantly in the 1960s when we all believed space travel would broaden the human mind. But now that the conviction behind this belief has died, films in the genre are simply exercises in style. He’s right. To quote another critic, Pauline Kael, modern movies have style to burn, and that’s what they should do — burn it. Three good films I’ve seen lately have all been outside genre. Marion Cotillard gives a spellbinding performance as a woman thrown out of work in Two Days, One Night, while Rebecca Lenkiewicz wrote the screenplay of the year to elevate Pawlikowski’s Ida to something way better than anything the director’s ever achieved without her. Best of all is Winter Sleep, a masterpiece. It’s an Anatolian re-setting of Chekhov. Not a genre you can reduce to style.

The National Theatre has just been rebuilt: more theatres? more plays? more rehearsal rooms? No — more restaurants, and bars. Do people guzzle more these days, or do they just guzzle more in public? Is guzzling the only way to get people to look at art? The chef at the Berners Tavern, Jason Atherton, has said that restaurants are drawing as many tourists to the capital as theatre. I’ve never eaten at one of Atherton’s joints, but I doubt his cooking is as rich and sustaining as Lesley Sharpe in A Taste of Honey or Howard Davies’s production of The Silver Tassie. Peter Brook, radical as ever, offered only hard boiled eggs with salt in the café at Les Bouffes Du Nord in Paris. The theatre was packed.

In an ill-judged speech in October, the Travelex founder Lloyd Dorfman reopened the theatre renamed after him by declaring the National Theatre to be a £100 million business. He could not be more wrong. Generations of idealists fought for public subsidy precisely to remove theatre, as an art form, from commercial demands. That’s why the struggle was so long and the victory so heady. Dorfman then thanked corporate sponsors for making the theatre possible. You could feel his audience bristle. For the last 50 years the most generous contributors have been you and me, through our taxes. We have paid for the National. It belongs to us. Private philanthropy may have provided a little icing but we made the cake. It’s only because our current Prime Minister, Chancellor and Culture Secretary don’t understand duty of care or public responsibility that further fund-raising has been necessary. The National Theatre is there to lead public taste, not to follow it. Occasionally it may launch productions which turn out to be profitable, but principally it aims to fulfil a more urgent remit: to animate both the world repertory and the modern. If it dwindles to a point where it is simply an unfairly subsidised competitor with the West End, it will deserve to die.

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  • tomcmc

    Absolutely spot on David – Dorfman and his ilk cannot conceive of the notion of a ‘National’

  • tomcmc

    Theatre, by the people and for the people. yet a cultural institution that does not slavishly follow fashion or the lowest common denominator in order to fill the seats, rather challenges and provokes debate and discussion.
    I am an ardent supporter and lament the increasing commercialisation of a place I love and cherish. As for the re-naming of the theatre as the Dorfman……..

  • leslie perrin

    “If it dwindles to a point where it is simply an unfairly subsidised competitor with the West End, it will deserve to die.” Stand up The Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

  • davidofkent

    The big problem with commercialism in the Arts is that we will end up with nothing but ‘Britain’s Got (no) Talent’ and ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get me Out of Here’.

  • grimm

    So, the National theatre belongs to “you and me” does it? We may pay for it but our ruling elite (the great & the good, the intelligentsia, the people who matter, the quangocrats) will decide what is done with it. Disdain for the common herd, whose vulgar tastes are so disappointing to progressive sensibilities, is a constant feature of the arts establishment however much they lean to the left.

  • carl jacobs

    Is guzzling the only way to get people to look at art?

    It helps to drink before viewing modern art. Steadies the nerve. Dulls the pain. And if you drink enough, you might be able to forget what you saw.

  • ryfunere

    No theatre or Art Gallery should receive public funds. If they cannot support themselves by attracting paying audiences and/or corporate sponsorship they should close.

  • carl jacobs

    This entire article should be titled “The Plebeians are Revolting. If we can’t bullwhip them into Progressive Enlightenment, can we just have their money?”

  • Marmalade Sandwich

    David Hare is a turgid dramatist. I have never finished to the end any of his awful plays. What needs to be remembered, and what is superior about commercial theatre (musicals aside), is that they need to put those paying for the blasted thing at the centre of the process. You must entertain the audience, not write something for you Marxist friends or to be a bore about your latest hobby horse. The National is the best of the subsidized theatres, but what are they doing at the Royal Court?

    Also, what the F is David Hare doing writing in The Spectator? If Sir Tom Stoppard wasn’t available, then ask Terry Johnson.

  • Zionist lackey

    The National Theatre must go it alone and not remain tied to the apron strings of the taxpayer. The National Theatre, like the BBC, should be able to survive without support from the taxpayer; given their self-proclaimed mutual tie of excellence, both the National theatre and the BBC, who eagerly boast of their world-wide excellence, should not claim any dependency upon the taxpayer.

    If these two institutions wish to advance according to their respective boasts, then they should have no need of tax-payers money to finance them. They should be allowed their floatation within the market place to make a living; if they are truly what they conceive themselves to be.

    If their opinion of themselves proves correct; the taxpayer will be happily unshackled from any further contributions.

  • Zionist lackey

    The National belongs to corporate and wealthy sponsors, not the tax paying public. Our theatres in the UK should be financed at the ticket office in alliance with private donation, as is the case in America. America does not call upon those not interested in the theatre to help finance it through taxes. And it should be the case in the UK.

  • Zionist lackey

    The general taxpayer should never have to pay for the arts. They should never have any kind of tax funding, unless it is part of a tax write-off. David Hare is a scrounger when it comes to financing his theatre plays. He hates wealth creation but chooses to ignore the fact that just one percent of the population; its wealthiest; provides 30% of the nation’s tax revenues. A statistic which David Hare prefers to disregard.

    Such financing of the theatre should come from the wealthy, as it does, and has always done, in America. Or from a big theatrical producer; who has enough personal wealth to finance the production. This and only this is the way to finance British theatre. Anything else, such as the government intervening at the taxpayers expense will be met with horror – as it should, from the general public.

    The taxpayer should have no role to play in theatre productions. The state should have no role to play. Whether a play succeeds or fails has little to do with the taxpayer.