It is implicit in the name ‘National Theatre’ that the content of the organisation’s seasons will reflect the variety, character and idiosyncrasy of the people and performers of the UK. In this much, Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner surely succeeds, with the current season including a great breadth of work: from a new play by Mike Leigh to Shakespeare starring Lenny Henry, via a one-man show from performer du jour Daniel Kitson, and not forgetting the continuing hit run of the National’s War Horse in the West End. There is also, however, a suggestion that a theatre explicitly billing itself as ‘national’ will, by its nature, provide equal theatre-going opportunity to everyone who may take an interest – after all, the National does receive a great deal of public money each year – more than £18m for 2011/12.
This is not, unfortunately, a suggestion which materialises in reality either at the National, or indeed at other subsidised theatres such as the notoriously tricky-to-book Donmar Warehouse. I, and other members of the public hoping earlier this week to get their hands on tickets to John Hodge’s Collaborators at the NT’s Cottesloe auditorium this autumn, were disappointed to discover – on the evening before general booking was due to open – a message on the production’s webpage announcing all scheduled performances have by this point sold out.
But who to? If booking hadn’t opened, where in the world can the tickets have gone? The answer lies in the National Theatre’s ‘Ladder of Membership’– a financial support scheme whereby an annual donation is rewarded with various perks ranging from advanced ticket bookings to dinner with the Artistic Director himself. The lowest rung of the ladder, Advance Membership, costs £15 a year and grants donors access to priority booking – not, as the box office have confirmed, a limited priority allocation – but priority booking which allows tickets to high-demand events such as Collaborators to sell out before the public get a look in. The situation when Mike Leigh’s new play Grief went on sale this summer was yet more alienating. An on-sale date even earlier than that for Advance Members was put in place for those pledging upwards of £65 a year, Priority Members, who promptly snapped up every ticket of the original booking period – leaving their less generous ladder-partners with a serious lack of bang for their buck.
Despite this frustration, it is worth mentioning that I have no fundamental problem with the nature of such support schemes – indeed, the NT website cogently outlines that to carry out its highly-acclaimed work both in and outside the theatre, funding from private sources is necessary to fill a 9% funding gap left after income and public subsidy. The Donmar is under still more pressure, with private donations responsible for covering 40% of necessary annual income – but it seems fair to expect that no-one will be excluded from attending a production on the basis of whether or not they donate.
The crucial issue – particularly in small theatres such as the 300-seat Cottesloe and the 250-seat Donmar – is one of ticket allocation. Where currently, many priority booking periods place no cap on the number of seats that can be sold before general booking opens, it would seem sensible to reserve an allocation of tickets from across the price spectrum to be released at a specified time, for each and every one of us to have a go at getting. If members of the public could enter into a booking period expecting a scramble, aware of the possibility of disappointment but at least with a chance of grabbing a ticket, the resentment amongst some theatregoers may be less intense.
For me, and my longing for a ticket to Collaborators, the battle may be over but the war is by no means lost. The box office has confirmed that further dates will be announced in due course, and the record shows that second booking periods tend to be far less frantic than their predecessors. Failing that, there is then the prospect of day seats, returns, competitions, and – if all else fails – eBay. For the ardent theatregoer, no obstacle or imposition can get in the way of that electric – if ever-more exclusive – thrill.
Collaborators will be playing at the National Theatre from October 25th 2011 – January 21st 2012. For more information, visit the National Theatre’s website.
Image by Geoff Wilson / WWF-UK