National Theatre: A middle-class nightmare?

There is something deliciously quaint about Terrence Rattigan’s ‘After the Dance’ at the National Theatre. It captures the dying days of an all-drinking, all-smoking generation, longing for their lost youth and stumbling tipsily toward the horrors of war. The London flat is spacious, the dresses are glamorous and the accents are perfectly clipped and proper. In short, it’s a period piece.

Or is it?

For when the curtains close and the house lights come up, that world of privilege, or at least very refined accents, is all around you.

I am sure that the National Theatre is aware that its audience remains overwhelmingly middle-aged and middle class, and yet I would hope that it is not complacent about it. I recognise the important contribution made by people who are able to and enjoy spending their wealth on supporting theatre and the arts; however, in the long term the affluent returning audience may not be enough to defend the National Theatre in particular, and theatre in general, against charges of obsoletism.

To be fair, the National Theatre is trying to attract a more diverse audience through schemes such as the Travelex £10 tickets; Entry Pass, which gives free and heavily discounted tickets to under 25-year-olds (and which is now vulnerable to being axed after A Night Less Ordinary was culled by the recent funding cuts); the Discover programme that invites people to learn more about the workings of the theatre; and the Connections scheme, where youth groups from around the country stage specially commissioned plays by leading writers. Its upcoming programme also demonstrates an interesting mix of shows, with the unique and dynamic ‘Earthquakes in London’ and ‘FELA!’ standing out. The Square² also shows cutting-edge outdoor theatre from international companies and is cheap enough to take the risk thanks to Priceless Previews, where you pay what you choose at the end of the show.

However, despite these initiatives, I rarely see any evidence of real progress being made in getting younger people, or people from different socio-economic backgrounds, through the door and into the stalls. Other theatres, located not that far away from the middle class haven of Southbank, seem to be doing a better job of engaging different audiences through access schemes and the type of works staged. Through its Two Boroughs project the Young Vic provides free tickets to residents of Lambeth and Southwark, which goes some way to engaging a diverse, local audience. Likewise the Theatre Royal Stratford East stages plays targeted at the local community and bills its Youth Arts Studio Season alongside the rest of its productions.

You could argue that it doesn’t matter if National Theatre audiences are a sea of the same faces month after month. If other theatres are better at engaging and catering for different audiences then leave them to it, and allow the National to remain a comfortable haven of chinos and twin-sets. However, it is precisely because the National Theatre is so important and good at what it does, thanks to its tremendous space, resources and reputation, that it is necessary that it does everything it can to shield itself from the criticism that it is irrelevant to society as a whole. If recent funding cuts are just the tip of the iceberg, then the case must be made for why institutions such as the National Theatre have to be protected from more savage attacks to their finances. That argument will be a lot easier to make and win if theatres are seen to be less elitist, and start to actively serve local communities and a wider audience.

Either way you look at it, attracting a more diverse audience is a necessity. If you don’t see any problem in leaving the National Theatre to be run as a purely corporate institution, funded by ticket sales to people who can afford whatever it charges, then kindly compare it to all other private businesses. If any company turned around and said ‘No, we’re fine with the customer base we’ve got thank you, we don’t need to appeal to anyone else’ it would be corporate suicide. Conversely, if you feel that theatres should be supported by the state in order to pursue innovative and interesting new works, then what publically funded institution in its right mind says ‘We’ll take the public’s money thanks, but we’ll only serve a small, wealthy proportion of them’? Theatres provide a public space and service and so should be supported out of the public purse; however, in order to justify this they have to try and serve that public as well as they can, which with a little imagination and investment is perfectly possible to do, without hurting existing audiences or artistic standards.

I appreciate that the National Theatre is taking measures to diversify its audience base, but I long for the day that noticeable improvements start to be made. All theatres have a responsibility and reason to attract a more diverse audience, but perhaps none more so than the National, which must serve society as a whole and not just a privileged few. The clue is in the name!