Photo: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian
Roxana Silbert’s resignation from her role as artistic director of Hampstead theater comes at a pivotal moment after losing the £766,455 annual grant from the Arts Council. This represents not only his personal disappointment, but also the collapse of the dream started 60 years ago by James Roose-Evans that north London should have its own new writing centre. Other London theater institutions also lost their grants. Donmar Warehouse lost more than £500,000; Stockroom, which provides creative space for playwrights, £426,352; and Gate, which has just moved into its new building, costs £306,330. The writing is on the wall. Where less will be (by living playwrights) London scenes.
Related: Hampstead theater director resigns after Arts Council 100% funding cut
Is it important? New writing venues are not lacking in London. And as part of the grand plan of Nadine Dorries, former minister of state for digital, culture, media and sport, the regions will gain £24m absorbed from the metropolis.
But I’d say it’s important for a couple of reasons. To begin with, the attempt to incite London against the districts is a cynical political ploy designed to disguise this government’s apparent failure to support the arts. What we are witnessing is not a real redistribution of wealth, but a systematic redistribution of scarcity. If you think I’m exaggerating, keep in mind that Arts Council England’s £341m aid budget represents a 30% to 50% drop in value since 2010. one-third of their real futures income.
The current cuts are also based on a misconception: that London theaters cater only to local audiences and artists, and their reduction will have no impact beyond the M25. In the case of the brutally acted English National Opera, this is blatantly wrong. As the name suggests, it is a national institution with international connections. Hampstead theater’s reach also extends far beyond its neighbourhood. This year’s program has already featured The Forest by French Florian Zeller, The Breach by American Naomi Wallace (living in Yorkshire) and Mary by Rona Munro from Scotland. If you look back at Hampstead’s amazing 60-year history, you’ll realize that many of the writers it has produced have had a huge impact on culture, including Mike Bartlett, Mike Leigh, Dennis Kelly, Abi Morgan, and Roy Williams.
That’s the real point. New writing for theater is not a niche activity for the few enthusiasts, but a source of supply for the entertainment industry, among other things. One of the most popular shows in the West End, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was written by Jack Thorne, who cut his teeth in Bush and Arcola. One of the best films of the year, The Banshees of Inisherin is the work of Martin McDonagh, which first attracted attention at the small Theater Upstairs in the Royal Court. And this year’s most surprising TV series, Sherwood, was written by James Graham, whose early work was pioneered by the even younger Finborough.
Of course, the regions need more money. In 1986 I was a member of the Cork British theater investigation specifically tasked with reviving the theater outside of London. It has also had some success in encouraging local authorities to pump new money into the system.
I am aware that this is impossible in the current economic environment. But I’m equally skeptical of the Arts Council’s approach that by cutting a few branches from the theater trees in London you can encourage the growth of a forest elsewhere. What this ignores is that everything is interconnected in the complex ecology of British theatre.