A panel of experienced directors, producers and playwrights unanimously agreed that the production of plays in London’s Theatreland was in a healthy state, though many financial and artistic constraints existed.
The industry figures were discussing the issue in a debate at the Royal Court on Wednesday 7 May organised by the Society of London Theatre as part of its initiative Celebrate The Play. Chaired by Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington, the panel comprised: producer Sonia Friedman, director Edward Hall, Almeida Artistic Director Michael Attenborough, director and writer Peter Gill and playwright Roy Williams.
During the debate, the panel discussed the obstacles that face the straight play in a London theatre industry dominated by musicals, including the financial implications of staging a new play, the reliance on star power, the impact of film and television on the availability of actors and the differences between subsidised and commercial play-making.
Friedman, who is producing the commercial transfer of Polly Stenham’s play That Face from the subsidised Royal Court to the Duke of York’s this month, highlighted the financial difficulties commercial producers face in mounting a straight play in the West End. When a production can cost as much as £350,000 initially, with weekly running costs of £50-£60K, a producer needs its star actors to commit for more than 10 or 12 weeks to have any hope of recouping costs at the end, said Friedman, but “there are so many barriers” which prevent actors from signing for long runs, not least commitments to their screen careers.
While Friedman acknowledged that household names were necessary to bring in audiences in the West End, she said that nowadays there was an “imbalance” in big name actors who pull in the crowds but whose fame was based more on their film career rather than their work in theatre. “What is a star actor? What is their training? Are they actually capable to perform eight times a week in terms of their theatre training?” she asked.
“I think there are very few theatre stars left,” she added. “Even Maggie Smith can’t pack them out now. I would know from a list of actors who would sell out, but it would be based on their film career.”
Hall, director of The Deep Blue Sea, which is currently playing at the Vaudeville, also highlighted problems in casting an actor based on their screen fame. True theatre stars, he said, “give you choice”, citing the “technical ability” of Kenneth Branagh, whose career started in theatre. But some well-known actors have little experience in theatre that they “can’t reach beyond the fourth row.” He added: “I’m not sure where the next generation of young actors is going to come from en masse.”
Attenborough said the subsidised sector had a different experience in this respect; in fact, when he took over the post of Artistic Director at the subsidised Almeida he felt the theatre had become “too starry”. The definition of a star in the subsidised sector was also different, he said, giving the example of theatre regular Helen McCrory, soon to appear in Rosmersholm, who is “a star at the Almeida” but not a West End box office draw.
But Attenborough did acknowledge that theatre does not have the same financial appeal for actors as screen work, so actors must be motivated by the desire to do the piece rather than the need to earn money. Friedman agreed, saying she had “so many examples of actors who have pulled [out] at the last minute” due to screen commitments.
The impact of the screen on London theatre was also felt by Attenborough in the attitude of the BBC, which, he said, did not know what was going on in the theatre. Gill, whose play Small Change is currently running at the Donmar Warehouse, agreed, saying there was an “anger and hatred” for theatre in the television world.
There was also criticism for the BBC’s theatrical reality shows, engineered by Andrew Lloyd Webber, which Attenborough said were “nauseating”. Though Attenborough played down the suggestion that musicals are a threat to plays, saying “most musicals occupy theatres you wouldn’t want to do a play in anyway.”
Friedman disagreed, saying some smaller playhouses like the Ambassadors had been taken over by musicals, meaning That Face was now housed in the 650-seat Duke of York’s rather than a preferable 400-seat theatre.
Most positive about the state of the play in London was playwright Williams, whose most recent plays, Baby Girl and Days Of Significance, have both been seen in London in the last few months. Williams said he was not concerned about a threat to plays, rather, “my main concern is ‘can I pay the rent?’”.
In concluding the debate, all panellists were optimistic about the state of the play. Friedman surmised: “In the commercial sector our challenge is finding ways to produce things [so] that we can continue to flourish but to shift and change as the culture is changing.”
That Face opens at the Duke of York’s on 9 May.
Rosmersholm previews at the Almeida from 15 May.
Small Change plays at the Donmar Warehouse until 31 May.
The Deep Blue Sea is now previewing at the Vaudeville.