Right of Reply: Sir Peter Hall

The former head of the National Theatre responds to Ian McKellen's leaving of the London stage
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I WAS recently begged by a producer not to cast a distinguished actor in a play. It was not that he was miscast; he was exactly right for the role. But he would not do publicity. His talent therefore became not a blessing but a liability.

This absurdity is a sign of the times. The market-place is crowded, and clamouring for the attention of audiences. It is not enough to be good; you have to be noisy with it.

The theatre, whether commercial or subsidised, simply does not have the advertising budgets to make itself heard in this tumult.

So we depend more and more on actors who will provoke the media. Usually this means actors with colourful private lives.

The exception is Sir Ian McKellen - great actor, great man of the theatre, and a genius at PR. Last week, Sir Ian announced a season at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. He said he was turning his back on middle-class London audiences. Apparently audiences are "realer" in Leeds.

Now, I applaud his decision to work in regional theatre. And I cheer at the increased profile he is getting for Leeds. I also think it is very entertaining that he has been able to manipulate the media so expertly. They know, he knows and I know that he will not appear on the London stage again until he appears on the London stage again. There will be pieces then about the need for Metropolitan judgement and international standards. But in the meantime, the print flows, and Jude Kelly is doubtless dancing round her Leeds box office.

If the theatre is to survive, Sir Ian becomes not just a role model as a great actor, but as a necessary publicist. Like it or lump it, future generations of actors will simply have to learn to bang the drum more than more loudly.

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