WHEN SIR Ian McKellen fired his broadside at theatre in the capital in an interview in The Independent yesterday, he did so in spirited style. He questioned whether some people in the audience at the National Theatre could even speak the language and wondered why there were no black faces in the audience. And he said he was moving for six months to Leeds to find fulfilment in the repertory company of the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Sir Ian is not the first of Britain's great classical actors to be caustic about London audiences. Six years ago Sir Alec Guinness turned his back on the West End, remarking: "I'd rather go to the provinces where they still speak English and not Japanese."
Sir Ian McKellen chooses more lyrical language. He does not, he says, want to "betray the soul of acting" by performing any more in large theatres with no idea of what sort of people are in the audience. In the regions, he says, local people look on the theatre as theirs and build up a relationship with the actors, just as the actors in an old-fashioned rep company where they appear in several plays and build up a relationship with each other.
In Leeds, the West Yorkshire Playhouse artistic director, Jude Kelly, is making radical attempts to bring theatre to new audiences. There has already been a cyber cafe, and there will soon be video screens in the foyer to accompany an adaptation of the best-selling book Deadmeat by the multimedia artist Q.
Jude Kelly said: "To secure the future of theatre we need to find ways to encourage new, young audiences. To do this it is essential that we explore mediums that excite and enthral younger generations and celebrate subjects and ideas that appeal to them."
And London's best-known impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh has chosen to premiere his second re-working of the musical Martin Guerre in Leeds, saying: "The West Yorkshire Playhouse is without doubt one of the most exciting and adventurous regional theatres in the country and I am proud to be a part of it."
Yesterday a bewildered theatreland in London was fighting back. The Society of London Theatre pointed to a new report, prepared at the London School of Economics, which shows West End theatre as a billion-pound business. In the first study to give a complete picture of the popularity and economic impact of theatre in the capital, it shows that 11.5 million seats were sold in the West End last year with a ticket revenue of pounds 246m.
The report, written by Tony Travers, director of the Greater London Group at the LSE, also states that 41,000 jobs depend on West End theatre, theatregoers in London spent pounds 433m on restaurants, hotels, transport and merchandise last year and London theatre's total economic impact in 1997 was pounds 1,075m.
Nica Burns, production director of Stoll Moss Theatres, said last night: "Please come back Ian McKellen. The West End would love to have you back and you would find that we have a flush of contemporary writing with such shows as Popcorn and Closer. It's a terrible misconception that most audiences are made up of tourists."
The West End producer Thelma Holt, who is also the Cameron Mackintosh professor of contemporary theatre at Oxford University, said: "I think British audiences are the best in the world. Last week three and a half hours of Hamlet in Japanese received rapturous applause at the Barbican. Of course there are a lot of foreigners in our audiences but I think that's an advantage. It's nice to have a cosmopolitan audience."
Review, page 3
Is Ian McKellen Right?
The View From The Stalls
The Independent went to a performance of Closer at the Lyric Theatre, in Shaftesbury Avenue,London, to ask theatregoers whether West End audiences actually appreciate what they're seeing on the stage.
Craig Kennedy, 42, attorney,
from San Francisco
"I know absolutely nothing about this play. We bought tickets for it at a half-price ticket booth after flying in this morning. What this actor says is fine by me."
Sue Hall, 43, housewife,
from Putney, London
"I haven't been to the theatre for quite a long time - I just haven't arranged it for a while. I think it's probably right that there are a lot of tourists because they have the time to go."
Robert Southgate, 64, retired,
"I come to the theatre a lot. If he [Sir Ian McKellen] said he would rather play in the provinces I'm delighted about it because I'm on the board of the Birmingham Rep."
Anne Tilesi, 51, travel agent
from Tunbridge Wells, Kent
"I don't understand McKellen's remarks. An audience is an audience wherever they come from. It would be like me saying I won't have anyone booking a holiday who isn't English."
John Stone, 53, stockbroker,
from Dagenham, Essex
"I come to the theatre very much... probably once a fortnight. I've got a lot of respect for Ian McKellen but I think London is the place for theatre and culture."
Victoria Burke, 53, self-employed,
from Tunbridge Wells, Kent.
"We've done all the big ones - Miss Saigon, Cats, Les Mis... It's very sad that Ian McKellen has taken that attitude. It's quite arrogant to say foreigners don't appreciate the theatre."
William Robertson, 34, yoga instructor
from New Zealand
"I don't go to the theatre regularly. I see movies more often. I found out about this from Time Out. I think a large proportion of people seeing plays in London aren't from England."
The Rev Geraldine James, 65, minister
from Maryland, USA
"I love the theatre, but I don't go much in the States - so this is a treat for me.To me [Sir Ian McKellen's] reading into the mind of his audience something that might not be true."