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The Independent Archive: 1 September 1988 - A mirror in which every age sees its reflection

Richard Eyre takes over today as Director of the National Theatre. He presents here his manifesto for action
IN THE Polish epic The Knights of the Teutonic Order, set in the early Middle Ages, a Knight is tortured, his tongue is cut out, and he is imprisoned in an iron box for several years. He is eventually liberated from his confinement and shambles out, grey-haired, sightless and tongueless, to rediscover a world whose features he can only guess at. This is not light-years away from my worst nightmares about the Chateau d'If on the South Bank.

But reality is comfortingly different. The National Theatre is not an immutable bureaucracy, nor is it a cultural colossus riddled with the virus of institutional inertia. It is - to state what ought to be obvious - a theatre; or, to be more obvious still, three theatres within one building; and people work in these theatres for the traditional reasons that are often loftily dismissed as sentimental: a sense of community, a desire to share a common purpose.

The National Theatre exists to do work which either by content or by execution, or both, could not be performed - or would not be initiated - in the commercial sector. It provides continuity of "investment", of employment and of theatrical tradition, and this requires a subsidy to supplement the revenue from the box office.

Recently, a wilful attempt has been made to blur the distinction between the subsidised and the commercial theatre in order to argue that there is no longer any real need for subsidy: if market forces can prevail for large nationalised businesses, so they should for large theatrical companies. (This is, of course, to ignore the fact that every night of the week, 52 weeks a year, the NT places 2,300 seats for sale in the "marketplace" and depends for its survival on at least 1,750 of them.) The case for the existence of subsidised theatres is made on their stages and the only questions worth asking are, "Is what I see on the stage any good?" and "What does it mean to me?"

The policy of the National Theatre has been diverse and pluralistic and will remain so. At heart I'm a populist, but I don't mean by this that all standards are reduced to the common denominator of "popular" culture; merely that art can and should be popular and accessible even if its content is complex and disturbing. And so composing the content of the repertoire will always be a balancing act between adventure and caution; between known classics and the unknown; recent plays and new ones. But the spine of the work will always be the classics, which are our genetic link with the past and our means of decoding the present.

Every age sees its own reflection in these plays. We find in them not the past throwing a shadow on the present, but an image of ourselves. The classics survive because of what they mean to us now.

But we have to keep rediscovering ways of doing them. They do not have absolute meanings. There is no fixed, frozen way of doing them. When there is talk of "classical acting" what is often meant is an acting style that instead of revealing the truth of a text for the present day reveals the bombast of yesterday. "Dog acting", a friend of mine calls it: cocking a leg on the furniture, barking heartily, and growling to display all the emotions from A to B.

The larger part of our classical repertoire is the collection of plays written between 1580 and 1640. Almost all these are in verse, and there's the rub. Any attempt to come to terms with them must confront their form; the life of the plays is in the language, not alongside it or underneath it. It's impossible to overestimate the difficulties. The decay of language as an expressive force is evident everyhere, and it is hardly surprising that it is rare to find young actors who have a grasp of verse speaking.

If we are to tackle those plays where language is the principal mode of expression we have to be prepared to embrace the difficulties rather than ignore them. A truly successful Shakespeare performance is about as rare as a dry day in June, but when seen it is, as Coleridge said of Kean, "like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning".

From `The Independent', Thursday 1 September 1988