Arts: Better the devil you know

Method and Madness tried (and failed) to take a challenging body of work on tour. Venues didn't know what to make of it. What's wrong with regional theatre?
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The Independent Culture
Last night's opening of Demons and Dybbuks at the Young Vic should have marked the halfway point in a bold, three-year venture. Early in 1998, director Mike Alfreds assembled a 35-strong team under his Method and Madness banner: 10 actors and 25 technical and support staff were to work together continuously and, in most cases, exclusively until the end of 2000, building up a repertoire of five plays, each premiered at the Northcott Theatre, Exeter, then toured nationwide.

This "20>21 Vision" ensemble, named in honour of the two centuries its work would straddle, began with The Cherry Orchard, then staged two Alfreds adaptations, Demons and Dybbuks, based on Yiddish short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, and The Black Dahlia, from the punchy thriller by James LA Confidential Ellroy. Buried Alive, a new play by Philip Osment, joined the repertoire in March. None could be called safe crowd-pleasers and, while the critical verdicts were largely excellent, the size of audiences varied enormously: good houses in Liverpool and Derby, dismal in Truro, Bracknell and elsewhere.

The company needed a minimum of 28 weeks' touring engagements a year to have any chance of breaking even, but last May this stiff target slipped out of reach. "Our autumn season just fell apart," says Alfreds. "We simply could not get enough bookings and to carry on would have meant running up huge debts - effectively trading illegally." Rehearsals for A Midsummer Night's Dream, were halted and all future performances, including a planned London season of all five plays in 2000, cancelled.

It was Alfreds' actors who decided the ensemble's story must have a final chapter, however premature. Three members of the company, Eliot Giuralarocca, Al Nedjari and Joy Merriman, assisted by actor and director Ezra Hjalmarsson, led the campaign and managed to raise enough money to make the Young Vic run possible. Given that an actor's lot generally involves a month's rehearsal then six weeks of performances with colleagues one is unlikely to have met before or would probably work with again, Alfreds's brave experiment represented a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In the current cash-restricted climate, the chance to build a repertoire with a committed company of actors and continually to refresh the productions over such a long period offered an enormous opportunity to present audiences with work of rare depth and refinement. Indeed, Giuralarocca viewed "20>21" as an "an actor's Utopia". The company are hugely frustrated that the collapse of the enterprise has deprived them of a further 18 months of intense collaboration. By reviving Demons and Dybbuks, in which each actor plays several characters, mostly Polish Jews, he thinks the company "can make a positive out of a huge negative". While the next month should ease the actors' and technicians' short-term disappointment, the demise of "20>21 Vision" raises long-term questions about the kind of drama that can survive, let alone prosper, outside London.

Alfreds, responsible for dozens of absorbing productions of classical and contemporary work since 1975, when he founded Shared Experience, stresses that the Arts Council people are "absolutely not the bad guys in this scenario". The council supported Method and Madness to the tune of pounds 500,000 a year, and has put the company on a recovery programme, letting it maintain a skeleton staff while not producing new shows. So where does the blame lie?

"Theatres are having a tough time getting audiences in, and managers have, rightly, got tougher on the financial deals they make with touring companies," Alfreds concedes. "But many theatres expressed total indifference or downright hostility to 20>21 Vision. Up until the last recession, I would do five or six shows a year with Cambridge Theatre Company [which became Method and Madness] and all of the mid-scale venues booked us almost automatically. However, for the past seven years, many theatres have been saying `no', whatever plays I've chosen. If it's Shakespeare they say `There's too much around'; if it's Coward, they say `He doesn't play well here'; if it's Bashevis Singer they say `None of our audience has heard of him'."

Reluctant to criticise individual venues by name and wary of over-generalisation, he insists nonetheless that "this dumbing down is spreading rapidly". Certain managers' reluctance to take a chance on anything more demanding than anodyne farces or thrillers, preferably featuring a telly face or two, means that "your average regional theatregoer now has a very limited range of things they want to see - or think they want to see. Many theatres have such a mixed programme - dance, opera, musicals, comedians - that there might be just one or two plays in a season.

"The other big change - which is more profound than we in the theatre like to acknowledge - is that the solid, core audience, who would see anything because they love theatre, has fragmented. The marketing people tell you that there are now seven slices, ranging from cutting edge to conservative."

With hindsight, he admits he should have considered all of these factors when choosing the plays for "20>21".

He originally earmarked another new play to conclude the repertoire; A Midsummer Night's Dream was a belated (and unsuccessful) attempt to make the company more conventionally commercial. "The trouble is," he adds, "that I've never really thought about the audience. I've always just done the plays I like, as well as I can, and hoped people would enjoy them."

The problems Alfreds highlights are not universal, but a slow and steady collapse of the once thriving network of venues encouraging small and middle-scale work is undeniable.

There are fewer venues and less choice. Occasionally there are encouraging signs of challenging work succeeding outside the capital, but it tends to be home-grown. Colchester's Mercury Theatre, for example, has recently pulled itself out of the financial doldrums by forming a permanent ensemble staging Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and a new translation of a German play. Touring that kind of fare is virtually impossible.

Alfreds believes the trend is irreversible. "It does make me think about going abroad to freelance. You can't make people go and see what they don't want to see; you can't change the way our culture is going."

`Demons and Dybbuks', Young Vic, London SE1 (0171-928 6363) to 25 Sept

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