17 JULY 1976, Page 26


Robin Hood to the rescue

John Spurling

When I set out on my tour of provincial theatres I expected to find that the chief problem was money. In one sense of course it is. If we subsidised our theatres to the same tune as the Germans do—the combined subsidy for the Stuttgart Opera House and Theatre seven years ago, for example, was roughly two and a half million pounds—any moderately imaginative artistic director could astonish the nation if not the world. But with the average subsidy from both the Arts Council and local authorities totalling considerably less than a quarter of a million even in these days of inflation, no provincial theatre dare seriously challenge the unadventurous taste of its audience.

This is the real problem, for, unless it does so, the temperature of the whole operation remains too low to justify its existence except on pious 'cultural' grounds. A theatre which merely sets out to provide a 'live' evening as a change from television or the cinema is an expensive luxury and can seldom be classed even as cultural. But one which was properly 'live', in the electrical sense, switching on and conducting the latent passions of its audiences, whether aesthetic, political or social. would be worth any citizen's time and money. It is not that there is a shortage of actors, directors, writers and buildings ready and eager to create such theatres. On the contrary, the usual situation is that of Lars Porsena's Etruscans confronting Noratius on the bridge: 'Those behind [the curtain] cried "Forward!" And those before cried "Back !"

Nevertheless, there is one provincial theatre which has established a reputation for being more live than most. How does Richard Eyre at the Nottingham Playhoose contrive to present so many notable new plays that he sometimes makes even the more generously subsidised metropolitan theatres look pedestrian ?

The answer seems to be partly that he is luckier in his inheritance. The Playhouse itself, built in 1964 by Peter Moro and Partners, is not a very inspiring building. Its outward appearance with a cobbled piazza in front is pleasant enough, but inside it suffers from the clumsy 'new brutalist' style of its period. The circular auditorium (750 seats) gives the unfortunate impression of pushing the stage away, emphasising that division between performers and audience which most modern plays are at pains to break down. Its first director, John Neville, who began as part of a triumvirate with Peter Ustinov and Frank Dunlop but soon, like Octavius Caesar, acceded to sole command, was able to persuade distinguished performers to appear at Nottingham, as also was Stuart Burge who succeeded him. But you cannot make a policy out of star actors alone and Neville's greatest contribution was no doubt the heat and light that his regime generated. Uncomfortable battles may have been fought, but at least they drew attention to the battleground.

Eyre's own explanation is that he uses the repertory system. Sheffield and Bristol follow one complete run with another, but Nottingham usually alternates productions. Although this requires more set-changing and the maintenance of a permanent company, it means that you can temper safety with stimulation. If the audience responds badly for half the week, as it has to the recent English premiere of Brecht's Trumpets and Drums, it may still turn up for the other half, as it has for Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters. Thus both the morale of the company and the box office returns are kept afloat.

Nottingham, unlike Sheffield and Bristol, has no studio theatre. The disadvantages of not being able to show the most advanced work (which tends to rely on an especially intimate relationship with the audience) or to provide a choice of entertainments on the same night are balanced by the advantage that more risky productions cannot be hived off. There is some pressure on Peter James at Sheffield, for instance, to put all his experimental work in the studio and keep his large auditorium for old favourites. The antiquity of the Bristol Theatre Royal must prod Richard Cottrell in the same direction. At Nottingham there is no alternative: everything has got to work in the large theatre.

But beyond the more general reasons for Nottingham's success, I suspect that much is due to the presence of Richard Eyre himself. As a director (he has also worked as an actor, a writer for television and even a reviewer) he is actually an alumnus of the Neville regime. His experience includes six years at the Edinburgh Lyceum and individual productions for the Hampstead Theatre Club and the Liverpool Everyman, but his speciality has been in directing the plays of the new 'political' school of playwrights. Anyone who saw the recent London run of Comedians, even if he had reservations about the play, will have been able to judge the remarkable quality of Eyre's direction.

He has now been at Nottingham for three seasons and in that time has achieved not only national critical acclaim but audience figures of around 65 per cent for new work by John McGrath, Howard Brenton and David Hare as well as Trevor Griffiths. He reckons to do one new or out of the ordinary play in four. When other theatres are proud enough of risking one new play a season and count themselves lucky if they get 50 per cent houses for it, this is something of a miracle.

Furthermore, where most other theatres either close or give place to visiting companies during the summer, the Nottingham Playhouse presents its own productions for forty-nine weeks of the year. This is perhaps a little too much of a good thing, since in Eyre's words 'when the sun comes out the audience just dive' and a new production every month with only three weeks' respite once a year makes exhausting demands on the company, but the terms of the theatre's contract with the local authority enforce it.

Choosing to see Trumpets and Drums in preference to The Servant of Two Masters I found that I was swimming against the tide. Eyre could not explain why this easy, entertaining version of Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer should have received Nottingham's colder shoulder, unless it was simply that the adaptation bore the dreaded name of Bel' tolt Brecht. I cannot explain it either, for although Brecht updates the original bY seventy years so that the recruitment is of unwilling yokels to fight fruitlessly and imperialistically against American independence, instead of gloriously against French expansionism, the harshest political propaganda is reserved for the final scene. The rest can be taken more or less in the spirit of the original as a comedy at the expense Of rural simplemindedness. John Gunter's set made charming use of black-and-white cut-outs to suggest and parody eighteenth-century Shrewsbury— any audience loves such moments as that when Justice Balance goes to his cardboard shelves, runs his finger along the obviouslY two-dimensional spines and triumphantly pulls out a real legal tome. There was a strong cast, including Malcolm Storry as the well-named Sergeant Kite, John Price as Captain Plume and Zoe Wanamaker as the transvestite Victoria. The production was swift (always a virtue in Brecht) without losing detail and, like others I have seen bY Eyre, excelled in the orchestration of crowd' ed scenes with several strands of activity. He should have been in his element with Bartholomew Fair which opened as part of the Nottingham Festival in June.

So the mystery remains: why Eyre's patrons should reject Brecht yet accept plays bY young writers who have learnt from him. Alt the same, their limited acceptance is Welcome enough and suggests to me that as faint heart never won fair lady, so a bold policy may rouse an English audience even without the help of a German subsidy.

This is the third in a series of four views of ffre regional theatre