Amid all the gloom over the global economy and the future of our local arts community, it might be comforting to know that in some important areas the English theatre, both subsidized and commercial, is actually doing rather well. In October 2012, the body that measures visitors to London tourist attractions reported that attendances, particularly for open-air spots like Kew Gardens, were severely reduced during this year’s wet English summer. On the other hand, those who expected London’s West End theatres to be deserted during the Olympics were pleasantly surprised to find their box office figures were up on last year, overall a record year for both attendances and takings.
And you have only to look at the last annual reports of our two major companies, the Royal Shakespeare and the National, to see a couple of huge success stories. Michel Boyd, artistic director, and Vikki Heywood, his executive director, are leaving Stratford-Upon-Avon at the end of ten inspiring years, with a rebuilt theatre, a pumped up company and a string of exciting developments behind them–a very different situation from the demoralized, directionless body they inherited. The much enhanced riverside complex in the town of Shakespeare’s birth has drawn more than a million visitors since it opened and last year won Visit England’s Outstanding Contribution to Tourism award. In this last season it has housed 680 performances to a total audience of more than 400,000. Not content with this, the RSC built a replica Royal Shakespeare theatre and shipped it to Lincoln Centre in New York for a six week, sell-out season.
In London, the award-winning musical Matilda, based on a story by Roald Dahl, which began life in Stratford as a Christmas show, is still attracting capacity audiences–300.000 of them by the end of this report’s year, including a lot of very happy children. It goes to New York this year. The company is also mounting successful London transfer seasons of its staple Shakespearean fare in both West End theatres and a purpose-built space in the Round House. Nationwide, 260 amateur groups took part in their Open Stages programme, part of a large commitment to educational activity.
The financial side is rosier than ever: £18 million of the company’s £50 million turnover came from tickets sold at the box office, only slightly less than the money received from their total grants. Operating income was up by 50 percent on the previous year. And they can expect Matilda to be making a continuing contribution–even the worldwide hit Les Miserables, which originated as an RSC production, is still bringing in a few hundred thousand pounds a year in royalties.
The success story over at the National Theatre, celebrating ten years’ successful leadership by Nicholas Hytner and his managing director, Nick Starr, is even more stunning. Their 2011-2012 turnover of £80 million (twice what it was a decade ago) includes £20 million in box office for their three theatres on London’s South Bank, about the same as for the previous year, but a surge in earnings from War Horse (already exported to New York and Toronto, with further openings planned for Berlin and elsewhere) and the additional success of Richard Bean’s Goldoni adaptation One Man Two Guvnors (which transferred to the West End and New York) has brought in nearly £25 million. Some of this will come in handy for the NT’s current £70 million upgrade, which already has £50 million safely in the bank. In all, the NT gave 1746 performances of 27 productions last year, to a total worldwide live audience of 2.3 million people – accounting on the way for 38 percent of the theatre tickets sold in London’s established theatres.
We’re also seeing more of the National Theatre’s productions at home and abroad, thanks to an increased touring programme and the highly successful cinema programme NT Live, broadcasting performances as they happen, which by the end of this year should be available on 200 UK screens and twice that number in the rest of the world. 22 countries were taking live feeds of National Theatre shows at the time of writing.
Coming up fast behind these subsidized giants is the Globe theatre on Bankside, a reconstruction of Shakespeare’s original playhouse. It receives no public subsidy, yet attracted nearly 400,000 paying customers last season to watch around 300 performances, including a special season of all 37 Shakespeare plays performed by visiting companies in 37 different languages. In addition, Globe productions tour widely at home and abroad, and a new venture sees them being filmed for cinema audiences. Each year it returns a handsome surplus, as one of the ten most popular tourist destinations in the capital.
Tom Morris, the man behind War Horse and an earlier National Theatre money-spinner, Jerry Springer the Opera (which shocked British audiences as one of the first shows of Nicholas Hytner’s tenure), will be hoping to create a similar success story for the oldest working theatre in the country, the two hundred and fifty year old Bristol Old Vic, which has just opened the first phase of a £20 million redevelopment, the beautifully restored Old Vic auditorium itself. With an annual government grant of less than £1.5 million, Bristol, like many regional theatres, may have to run a lot faster to stand still in this time of reduced income all round–for audience members as much as theatres. But charismatic directors like Morris, and Jonathan Church at the Festival Theatre in Chichester (also embarking on an expensive upgrade) can provide inspiration for every company in the country. And we can expect the big regional houses, just like the National and the RSC, to be there for their smaller brethren with facilities, fundraising advice and a new-found sense of communal self-interest that could make these next few years in English theatre some of the most exciting we have seen.
This is the rosy side of the picture. Not everything in England’s theatre garden is lovely, however. The Arts Council, distributor of the State’s largesse, is itself facing a 50 per cent in its staff, as is the Ministry of Culture (DCMS) itself. And the reduction in Government funding which affects every sector of the economy has some particularly sharp edges in the regions, where the authorities running the South-Western county of Somerset (Conservative) and the North-Eastern city of Newcastle (Socialist) have threatened to cut their cultural funding completely. We sometimes forget that as much support for our theatres and concert halls comes from local as from national sources, so here there is real cause for worry. Nevertheless, our theatre has always thrived in adversity, and we can hope that its creative energy–plus its special ability to shout loudly and clearly about its value–will see it through.
 Ian Herbert is now consultant editor of Theatre Record, which he edited and published from 1981-2003. He edited the technical journal Sightline, 1984-91. He writes regularly for theatre journals worldwide, including a fortnightly column in The Stage newspaper. President from 2001-2008 of the International Association of Theatre Critics, he is now an Honorary President. A board member of the Europe Theatre Prize, he is also past Chairman of the Society for Theatre Research in London and a trustee of the Critics’ Circle. He is a visiting professor of three US universities and has lectured in many countries of the world.