Radical theatres in crisis as audiences opt for escapism

Several leading venues for overtly political drama have either closed or are under severe pressure
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The Independent Culture

Art for art's sake, goes the saying. But the UK's radical theatres are increasingly pleading for money for God's sake, as they face a growing threat of financial hardship and closure.

Despite a bumper year for Britain's stages, political theatres find audiences are staying away, opting to forget their troubles with escapist, light-hearted productions.

The latest venue at risk is The Tricycle in north London, which has staged a series of productions based on recreations of seismic political events such as the Scott inquiry, the Nuremberg trials, the Stephen Lawrence inquiry and the Bloody Sunday inquiry.

The Tricycle's misfortunes follow hard on the heels of the collapse of several other radical theatres. The 7:84 theatre company in Edinburgh closed in January after funding problems, and the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow is said to be in discussions with its local authority and could be facing cuts in an upcoming "week of bad news" for arts organisations in the city.

Some of Britain's leading artists, including Paula Rego and Antony Gormley, said this weekend that they intend to help save The Tricycle by donating works for auction later this month.

"It is very important to have political theatre," said Gormley, "where recent events, or attitudes to events, are reflected on."

Rego added: "English theatre is the greatest in the world and the plays in smaller theatres are often the ones that the larger venues shy away from."

Other famous names to donate include the actor Sir Antony Sher, the illustrator Ralph Steadman, the artist Maggi Hambling and Sir Peter Blake, who designed The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper album cover.

The theatre, which has also produced acclaimed plays about Guantanamo Bay, Deepcut – the Army barracks where four soldiers died of gunshot wounds – and the Hutton inquiry, needs £2.75m a year to stay afloat, only a third of which comes from ticket sales.

The Tricycle's artistic director, Nicolas Kent, said that, while Tricycle productions have transferred not only to the West End but to other stages around the world, and it has hosted world-renowned actors such as Vanessa Redgrave, audiences have preferred more light-hearted work during the recession.

"The pressure on us because of the recession is twofold," Kent said. "The cash we raise from charitable trusts has gone down enormously, and there has been less money coming in from individuals.

"Last autumn people were worried and tended not to spend money on going to the theatre, particularly serious theatre. They were opting for more light-hearted shows. We put on Deepcut and got great reviews but it did not do as well as we hoped at the box office.

"Musicals have been doing stormingly well, but all serious theatres rely on donations and they have been drying up."

As if to hammer home the point, the Hackney Empire, which also has a strong political track record, has announced it will close early in the new year for nine months amid financial difficulties.

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