The resignation of Roxana Silbert as artistic director of Hampstead theatre, after the loss of its annual grant of £766,455 from the Arts Council, is a significant moment. It represents not just her personal disenchantment but the collapse of the dream, initiated 60 years ago by James Roose-Evans, that north London should have its own hub of new writing. Other London theatrical institutions have also lost their grants. The Donmar Warehouse has lost more than £500,000; Stockroom, which provides a creative space for dramatists, £426,352; and the Gate, which only recently moved to new premises, £306,330. The writing is on the wall. Where there will be less of it (by living playwrights) is on London stages.
Does it matter? London is not short of new writing venues. And, as part of the grand scheme of Nadine Dorries, former secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, the regions will gain £24m sucked out of the metropolis.
But I would say it does matter for a number of reasons. For a start, the attempt to pit London against the regions is a cynical political ploy designed to disguise this government’s signal failure to support the arts. What we are witnessing is not a genuine redistribution of wealth but a systematic redistribution of scarcity. If you think I exaggerate, just remember that Arts Council England’s grant-in-aid budget of £341m represents a decline in value of between 30% and 50% since 2010. So in 12 years of Tory government, the arts have staggeringly lost between a third and a half of their real-term income.
The current cuts are also based on a fallacy: that London theatres cater only for local audiences and artists, and that their diminution will have no impact beyond the M25. In the case of the savagely treated English National Opera, this is palpably untrue. It is a national institution, as its name implies, with international connections. Hampstead theatre’s reach also extends far beyond its parish. Its programme this year has already included The Forest by France’s Florian Zeller, The Breach by America’s Naomi Wallace (who happens to live in Yorkshire) and Mary by Scotland’s Rona Munro. If you look back at Hampstead’s formidable 60-year history, you realise that many of the writers it has fostered, including Mike Bartlett, Mike Leigh, Dennis Kelly, Abi Morgan and Roy Williams, have had a considerable impact on the culture at large.
This is the real point. New writing for the theatre is not some niche activity for a few hobbyists but, among other things, a source of supply for the entertainment industry. One of the most popular shows in the West End, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, is written by Jack Thorne, who cut his teeth at the Bush and the Arcola. One of the best films of the year, The Banshees of Inisherin, is the work of Martin McDonagh, who first captured attention in the Royal Court’s tiny Theatre Upstairs. And the most startling TV drama this year, Sherwood, was written by James Graham, whose early work was pioneered by the even smaller Finborough.
Of course, the regions need more money. In 1986 I was a member of the Cork inquiry into English theatre, which was specifically charged with boosting theatre outside London. It also had some success in encouraging local authorities to pump new money into the system.
I realise that is impossible in the current economic climate. But I am equally sceptical about the Arts Council’s approach, which is that by lopping a few branches off London’s theatrical trees you will stimulate the growth of a forest elsewhere. What this ignores is that, in the complex ecology of British theatre, everything is interconnected.