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.

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