THEATRE 2000 : Making a drama out of a crisis

Cuts, closures... and creativity? Can the regions turn economic necessity into artistic opportunity? By Paul Taylor
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"Working in British theatre feels like working in a certain hotel in Scarborough. We are all wondering which one of us will go over the cliff next."

In using this apocalyptic image in a recent letter to the Guardian, Philip Hedley, the artistic director of the Theatre Royal Stratford East, was not referring to any lemming-like dash over the edge on the part of theatre practitioners; rather, he was painting a graphic picture of the eroding base of British theatre, an erosion which the Government seems cheerfully prepared to countenance.

In these cash-strapped times, when a regional venue like the Leicester Haymarket is entering its third year of standstill Arts Council grant, it is neither surprising nor edifying, a cynic might argue, that a so- called "culture of partnership" should be changing the face of the theatre world. With closure on the cards, it makes no more than good economic sense for, say, the Bristol Old Vic and the Cheltenham Everyman to consideramalgamation. Are there signs, though, that as it approaches the 21st century, British theatre is transforming economic necessity into artistic opportunity?

Bill Alexander, artistic director of Birmingham Rep, describes the dilemma the regional repertory theatres face: "We walk a tightrope between regeneration and oblivion. You must take risks to revitalise, but those risks could kill you." The kinds of collaboration and co-production that now proliferate in theatre are risk-spreading exercises, and they exist across the board: from Frank Gero's West End Producers' Alliance, which collectively raised the money to mount David Mamet's The Cryptogram, to the fact that last year a Touring Partnership was set up by eight regional houses with the aim of making classic plays available to more theatres at a lower cost. Well and good, but the key question remains: does this spreading of commercial risk inspire theatres to live more adventurously on a creative level?

There is one area where the answer to that question is a decisive and salutary yes: if you look at the international initiatives now afoot - particularly co-productions and the new links being forged between theatres here and overseas - you can see that, in pointed contrast to our political masters, British theatres are refusing to drag their heels over Europeanisation.

Jude Kelly, the artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, says that, where international work was concerned, the regions used to be "on a drip-feed from London"; this situation, she says, is now in an interesting process of reversal. Last year's "Everybody's Shakespeare" festival at the Barbican dismally illustrated the disadvantages of the old ways. The selection criterion for appearing in this metropolitan showcase was nothing more elevated than that the various foreign companies presented should be able to pay their own way or secure their own funding. No money was forthcoming from this end; there was precious little interaction between the visiting artists and their English counterparts. The results of a botched international shopping spree were, so to speak, whipped in and out, like the flowers in some glossy fashion-shoot.

The initiatives now coming from regional theatres such as the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Nottingham Playhousepoint the way forward. For a start, they are full co-productions and hence authentic instances of cultural cross-fertilisation. They are art-led, in that they have sprung from a patiently nurtured sharing of tastes and a common vision. And the work, designed to tour Europe and Britain, is free to bypass London. In the refashioned map of theatre, Jude Kelly says, this country would consist of "a series of regions, including London - and it would be good for London to think of itself like that for a while".

Nottingham Playhouse, for example, is currently negotiating for an autumn production of The Tempest to be directed by the brilliant Romanian, Silviu Purcarete. While initiated by and premiered in Nottingham, this project would be co-produced with the Hebbel Theater, Berlin, the Odon in Paris, Theatr Clwyd and Glasgow Tramway. Such negotiations are tricky, but as Thelma Holt, doyenne of international production, asserts, if the British have a talent apart from theatre, it's for diplomacy.

Another co-production - in which Nottingham's artistic director, Martin Duncan, directs Teatro Kismet, Italy's leading children's theatre company, in a new British adaptation of Pinocchio - hits the stage in June, then tours Italy, France and Germany this autumn, and then Britain. In Leeds, Jude Kelly has a major international co-production lined up, involving the dance-theatre company DV8 in a new version of Oedipus.

Of course, language barriers cannot be magicked away. A plan to include Romanian actors in the British cast of Mihai Maniutiu's new The Taming of the Shrew (for Leicester Haymarket this April) has had to be dropped. And bizarre cultural collisions occur, as when a recent high-profile Anglo- Japanese Peer Gynt offered the strange spectacle of an eminent Norwegian actor decked out, as the Troll King, in full Kabuki robes, make-up and thrashing lion mane, while spouting a Frank McGuinness version of Ibsen that gave the dialogue an unmistakably Celtic twang.

But, like it or not, internationalism is on the increase. Stephen Daldry's Royal Court runs writer-exchange programmes with such far-flung venues as the Audrey Skirball-Kennis Theatre in Los Angeles and the National Theatre of Kampala. The effects of this on the Court's repertoire will be felt before the millennium, Daldry promises. Just how deeply these trends are permeating the culture can be gauged from the fact that outfits as small as the Actors' Touring Company are now getting involved.

Last year they went into successful partnership with Thessaloniki's Piranutaki Skinis tis Technis, which resulted in two simultaneous productions of Euripides' Ion, one in modern Greek for Piranutaki's ensemble; one a Kenneth McLeish translation for ATC. Both productions, which pooled artistic resources and had the same British director, played to acclaim here and in Greece. Mutual instructiveness is one benefit of such exercises. For the English writers on the Los Angeles exchange for example, it has been liberating to witness the lack of inhibition with which white Americans are prepared to create and speak through black characters.

The whole topic of co-production is hedged around with doubts, ironies and counter-arguments. Bill Alexander is worried about "the dribbling away of a theatre's specific identity" and, like John Blackmore of Leicester Haymarket, says the process works better when you co-produce with a touring outfit (as Leicester and the Royal Court did with the newly born Out of Joint) or with an independent production company (as Birmingham will do for a projected main-stage large-cast play by Peter Whelan about Britain becoming a republic). It's trickier teaming up with another producing theatre, because one of them tends to feel the "visited" inferior partner, though to stop regional resources being wasted on endless productions of the latest repertory-release West End hit, Bill Alexander would like to see regional houses joining forces to produce one such production which could then tour to all.

Internationalists challenge the idea that theatres will end up like the nation's high streets, with their identical Ryman, Rumbelows and Boots, by saying that each theatre will make its own distinctive foreign links. The world is shrinking and, with the advent of the Internet, culture is becoming frighteningly disembodied. As an antidote, theatre - the art form where people confront one another in person - is more vital than ever. British theatre's expanding network, even in this time of beleaguerment, should ensure a meeting of minds and of peoples rather than a surfing through discarnate images.

Paul Taylor has been awarded Critics' Circle Critic of the Year