Theatre in Wales

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Last Words for Theatre in 2020

Radio Arts Feature

Nicholas Hytner Plain Speaking , Epitaph for a Year Without Performance , January 7, 2021
Radio Arts Feature by Nicholas Hytner Plain Speaking “Start the Week”, a nine-o'clock- in-the-morning radio regular, customarily has three to four guests. For the last of the year, 28th December, Sir Nicholas Hytner, was given the full forty minutes to himself. It was a wise editorial decision with many words spoken of candour and feeling.

Marr: On the worst shock to theatre since the closure by the Puritans.

Hytner: It's been agony. There's been no upside to it all. To watch all my colleagues essentially to have to go silent. To see empty theatres, to see empty concert halls, empty galleries, empty restaurants and bars, has been extremely painful...”

Marr: So there's a silence at the heart of the country where there should be a national conversation that is crackling, exploding.

Hytner: I've got to speak as a bitter opponent of the government's cultural agenda. It is necessary to recognise the cultural rescue fund...Without it we would have gone down. It compares well with what other countries are doing for their performing arts sector...In America our counterparts face ruin.

What it does do is enable cultural institutions and producers to survive to be able to present the work of those artists next year. Those artists are having a terrible time but at least the bodies that will be able to put them before the public are still around. They wouldn't have been otherwise.

Marr: A note of surprise in your voice. A lot of people see this as a populist government.

Hytner: It has been really significant. Not just the fact of it but the way that they talked about it. Boris Johnson when they presented the cultural rescue fund called the cultural sector “the beating heart of the country.” Oliver Dowden...said it was arts and culture were “the soul of the nation.” Even the Chancellor said they not only employ 700,000 people but they were... “the lifeblood of British culture.”

It's new to me to hear a Conservative government speak this way. It's quite an achievement for Oliver Dowden, for Downing Street to have made these arguments to the Treasury.

Marr: What would have been the result without the rescue?

Hytner: Most of them would have gone under. Most would have gone bankrupt....There really was an existential crisis...The provincial theatres are in dire, dire straits.

Marr: Will there be an effervescence...?

Hytner: Audiences will come back. It may take time. There is a wider point. If this crisis has revealed anything, it is the thing that has been missed most, the thing that has caused most pain to a hell of a lot of people has been the absence of what we do together. It is significant, and I say this again, that the Government has gone against its instincts.. They saw that life without the arts...how desperately miserable it made so many people...without those fulfilments many people's lives have been wretched.

This isn't just an argument just on behalf of the arts. It's what brings people together, what people have enjoyed together that has been missed. Some want to watch theatre, some want to watch sport, and some want to dance. It's a terrible, terrible deprivation to millions that they can't dance, or go to a cafe, or go to a restaurant.

Marr: So it's a theft of hubbub, it's a theft of mingling.

Hytner: ...That in itself is a public good. Anything that doesn't split us, anything that doesn't atomise us...

My experience is that the stage is at its best and that audiences like the stage best when it is genuinely sceptical, when it is holding up and mocking the preconceptions of the audience, always as stimulating and as enjoyable as having your preconceptions endorsed.

With a big grant come immense responsibilities. The thing that doesn't come with a big grant, I don't believe, is any responsibility to be supportive of the government of the day. That would be a betrayal of the grant. The grant is not the government's money, the grant is the public's money.

A grant brings with it huge responsibilities as far as education, getting out way beyond the core audience, who of course you must address, going out to people who might enjoy it but don't know about it. There's no moral obligation on anybody to enjoy theatre, there's no obligation on anyone to enjoy football, pigeon shooting....

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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