Theatre: Thrift, Horatio, thrift! And stuff the quality

A COUPLE of weeks ago, in conjunction with something else, Trevor Nunn alluded in passing to his dream for the National Theatre: to re-establish a permanent company there. He announced his idea so shyly, so tentatively, so wistfully, even, as if it were impossible - the ideal that has been at the heart of every plan for a National Theatre since such things were first contemplated over a 100 years ago, "the ideal that led Peter Hall to found the Royal Shakespeare Company and underpinned Laurence Olivier's assumption of the leadership of the National at the Old Vic".

The models were there: La Comedie Francaise, the Schiller Theatre in Berlin, the Burg Theatre in Vienna - all supported by the state, richly equipped, offering the citizens the very best that the theatre could offer; all sources of national pride. The new century brought ever more companies: the Moscow Art Theatre, the Abbey, Jouvet's la Compagnie des Quinze, and then, after the Second World War, and, perhaps most influential of all, Bertolt Brecht's Berliner Ensemble. Only Britain lacked either a national theatre or a company based, like Brecht's or Stanislavsky's, on an idea.

Two theatres, working on the most meagre of shoestring budgets, the Memorial Theatre in Stratford and the Old Vic in Waterloo, held together companies for whole seasons in a wide range of classical plays, and the development of the actors' work was astonishing, laying the ground for the great generation of actors now just gone. When finally, thanks to a very British combination of heady idealism, political chicanery and the operation of the old boys' network, these two organisations transmogrified themselves into the Royal Shakespeare Company and today's Old Vic within a couple of years in the early Sixties, it seemed we might at last be entering the theatrical kingdom of heaven.

And indeed, the richness of fare provided by those theatres during the first decade, both in terms of staging and acting, is enough to break your heart by comparison with what they offer today. Not, I hasten to add, that the talent is any less remarkable, or that there is any less passion, or less commitment. It is purely and simply that it is impossible for ad hoc groups to produce the results that an ensemble can achieve, and there is today no ensemble in Britain. Why?

The answer, too boring to be bearable, is always the same: thrift, Horatio, thrift. It is more expensive, without question, to keep a group together than it is to cast from play to play. And for a group to function at the level that the RSC reached under Hall and then Nunn, or the National under Olivier and then Hall, the inspiration, whether from an idea or from an individual, needs to be white hot. Somewhere, they lost their power to inspire their members to think of themselves as a team, a family, a regiment - an ensemble. Being a member of the RSC or the National became just another job: a rather less well paid job than the one in the West End or in television or film. It is unlikely that it will ever be able to compete in terms of financial reward with these media, and if Nunn's ensemble is to come into existence, it will certainly be incumbent on leading actors to make a sacrifice. If the theatre in this country is really to move forward, it must come into existence.

We're still drawing on the legacy of those companies in terms of the present crop of sixty-something actors, formed and nurtured in them, whose work simply could not be what it is today without that experience.

To take two at random: Ian Holm, now blissfully returned to stage work, and Elizabeth Spriggs, whose supremely achieved performance in Sense and Sensibility was a stirring reminder of the depth of the RSC of that vintage. As in so many areas of British artistic life, we managed to achieve something remarkable, and then, instead of taking it forward, we were immediately put into the position of fighting to keep what we had, making compromise after compromise till the original glory began to look very distant. If Nunn is able to create his ensemble - and there is no one in the British theatre more likely to make it happen - we may look forward to a new heroic age of acting.

And then perhaps he might consider creating a school of acting attached to the theatre; this is the source of the inspired work of most of the great European and Slavonic companies. There is no limit to the depth and the brilliance of what could appear on our stages. That's my idea of the millennium.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor