Waiting for a gust of wind

Will British theatre survive beyond the millennium? In the first of a series on the state of the nation's drama, Richard Eyre, the National's artistic director, offers Clare Bayley his vision for the future
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"I am caught, as Walter Benjamin says, between pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will. If you ask me if theatre will survive, you have to realise that, as a theatre director, I'm a professional evangelist for the medium by choice, and a fully paid-up optimist by necessity.

Everyone who works in the theatre does so for reasons of the heart; we are all romantics. We do it because we believe in this quaint medium which involves co-operation, a relationship between the people who make it and its audience. It's very difficult to do well and even when it is, even while it's being magnificent, it's poised on the edge of being silly. It is terribly frail, and that is why it's so mockable. But this also makes it singular. Film is very robust - you can throw things at the screen but it doesn't affect the film. But if you want to dissent at the theatre, it's easy to disturb the performance. It is irreducibly human and it does not exist without an audience.

Theatre is always in relationship and in scale to the human figure: you can't change the scale, unlike film, which changes the scale all the time. On stage there is always a person between, say, 4ft 10in and 6ft 4in tall, and everything else is in relationship to that. Theatre is always related to the human voice, the human form and human behaviour. As a medium it depends on applying a linear rationalisation to metaphors of our social world and form to a formless universe. Now people are confronting a world that is dislocated and atomised, and they are trying to make sense of it. Our lives, particularly urban lives, are so filled with images and events and information vying for attention, that an attempt to distil it into theatre seems to exclude so much. But every now and then a writer comes along who takes you by surprise and appears to deal with everything in our contemporary world, as Tony Kushner did with Angels in America."

What can you do to ensure that work of this quality emerges?

You can't legislate for where talent is going to emerge. I think of it like sunspots - you see those beautiful photographs of the sun's corona with huge licks of flame, thousands of miles high, which seem to unpredictably explode and then die. The landscape of theatre is like that. It is impossible to predict. All you can do is make the conditions right to seek out that talent and then, if you are lucky enough to find it, nurture and support it.

Imagine if all financial constraint were removed. What would you then be able to achieve?

There is a very proper financial restraint in theatre which is the relationship between the performer or the producer and the audience. Sometimes I go into the end of a performance, and if it's going well, the air is charged; it smells and feels different. That is the chemistry of theatre. It's not like painting, poetry or films, which exist autonomously; theatre is only that exchange of molecular movement in the air. A theatre that isn't interested in this relationship is a meaningless theatre. So you can't divorce considerations of money from considerations of who your audience is, and how many of them there are.

I believe that subsidy's role is twofold. Firstly, in the crude terms of today's market philosophy, it should guarantee continuity of investment. This means that you can put on shows and know that you're not going to go out of business if the show doesn't work. You're able to run a theatre that has a past, a present and a future. Secondly, subsidy ought to provide cheaper seat prices to ensure that it's accessible to everyone. This is controversial because the commercial theatre will protest at being undercut in this way, and people will always say that if you've got something good, people will pay for it. But if you look at other forms of entertainment, like cinema or CDs, theatre is expensive. Some people will always pay for it, but what about the others who can't?

If I won the lottery, I would try to do what the Arts Council has failed to do - owing to insufficient funds, coupled, perhaps, to lack of will: that is, try to restore the regional theatres to something nearer parity with the RSC and the National. The regional theatre represents a unique body of theatre culture which has been badly damaged. You can perform minor surgery but you cannot perform amputations without the whole body suffering.

In the 1970s there was a confederation of theatres around the country that had a sense of common purpose and shared experience and that emerged from the repertory movement. There was a sense of de facto apprenticeship served by actors and directors, and even writers and designers. Any actor of that generation, some of whom are now lauded in Hollywood, will inevitably have had this experience - Anthony Hopkins, Kenneth Branagh, Daniel Day- Lewis, Emma Thompson, Tracey Ullman, Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson. In the 1980s, the climate of opportunity, coupled with the market philosophy, meant that everybody got restless. Actors and directors short-circuited their apprenticeship in regional theatres by going straight into television, or into the national companies. Television and the national companies in turn got more opportunistic, more voracious and eager to suck up whatever talent was available. The confederacy of regional theatres started to atomise, and that culture started to be eroded. Even if it's from pure self-interest, the television, film and entertainment industries in this country must invest in that culture to keep it alive.

Would it be beneficial to the profession to have a theatre school attached to the National, or a permanent company of actors, or a group of writers- in-residence?

A theatre school attached to the National Theatre isn't the answer. And no amount of money or conditions will guarantee that you get good plays; as I have already said, talent is as unpredictable as the sunspots. You can only have a permanent company in a theatre if all the members are willing to accept the parts they are asked to. Actors are restless, they love the possibility of a new life waiting around the corner. My life would be much easier if they would agree to play the parts I allocate to them. The same is true of directors. In today's climate of opportunity there are many distractions available to them nationally and internationally. The best I can hope for is a continuing loyalty. I have four associate directors (Declan Donnellan, Deborah Warner, Nicholas Hytner and Howard Davies) who have regularly returned, and a core of about 30 or 40 actors who, in the past seven years that I have been the director of the National Theatre, have been more permanent than not.

It has been suggested that the cross-over of practitioners working for both the National and the RSC erodes the distinct identity of the two institutions.

I will not publish a manifesto for the National Theatre, but the policy is the plays produced, it is something you can see in retrospect. I would argue that there's a discernible taste, albeit an eclectic one, and a very strong desire to exploit the "theatreness" of theatre, both in the style and in the content of the plays that are produced here. My motto, to borrow from the rather unlikely source of Kafka, might be: "If theatre is to affect life it must be stronger, more intense than ordinary life. That is the law of gravity." You cannot say there isn't a distinct identity to the work of the National Theatre; it's hard to quantify or describe, but it's light-years away from the aims of the RSC, which is a classically- based theatre company, even though we may share directors and actors.

What is your response to the tendency to appoint administrators rather than artists to run theatres and other artistic institutions?

You cannot work in the theatre without thinking about your materials, and that includes large numbers of people, a building and sums of money. I've always thought that running a theatre had to be a partnership with my chief executive. I suppose I am first among equals - finally, the artistic director is responsible for the choice of plays. I couldn't do it without Genista McIntosh; I personally wouldn't be happy if the polarity were reversed but she would be perfectly capable of doing the job. What I don't like about the trend to appoint administrators over artistic directors is the implication that we need corralling or controlling. The good part of it is that people are beginning to understand that the theatre is short of producers. Appointing producers to run theatres is different to getting bureaucrats or accountants to run theatres.

To step into the political arena for a moment: in the theatre, as in so many areas of British society, there is a sense in which everybody is marking time, longing for change. Tony Blair and his party represent change that is almost separate from any ideological claims. Something has to change, and that's to do with desires and needs that people find hard to articulate. In this way the theatre is probably a perfect microcosm of society at large - even the financial world is waiting for change. It's like being at sea and waiting for a gust of wind.

My greatest fear for a vision of the theatre in the year 2000 would be a sort of elongated panto season, followed by two or three shows featuring stars of sitcoms in the classics of their choice. It could become a vortex of decline, and eventually this building [the National Theatre] and many other theatre buildings would become conference centres or snooker halls. This is my pessimism of the intellect. But I counter with optimism of the will: I can discern a new generation of writers and directors with vision and determination who don't think that theatre is a quaint antique that belongs with vintage cars and morris dancing. It's an important and engaging medium which provides entertainment while helping us to make some sense of our lives."