A nation suffering from stage fright: Starved of funds and street cred, theatre must make itself trendy, argues David Lister

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ON CHRISTMAS Day, fighting the inevitable losing battle against the Hollywood blockbusters on BBC and ITV, Channel 4 will present a marvellous 20-minute film of Chekhov's Swan Song in which Sir John Gielgud stars as an aged actor reminiscing bitterly about his past.

But, urges his companion, theatre can uplift, extend the imagination, fill the senses.

'Yes, yes,' replies Gielgud testily. 'We all know that it can. The bugger of it is it hardly ever does.'

It is a curiously topical exchange. Later this week the Arts Council is expected to shift funds from some of the country's best-known theatres to contemporary dance and the visual arts, on the grounds that these are the art forms whose audiences are expanding.

The theatre is getting the cold shoulder, and not only in terms of funding, according to the playwright David Hare. In a lecture to be delivered next month he declares that theatre is unfashionable, 'conspicuously ignored' by style magazines and 'sneered at' by metropolitan newspapers.

This is an observation one hears from time to time while rescuing one's lapels from an emotional struggling playwright. It is less usual to hear it from a man with three plays currently selling out at the National Theatre.

Starved of money, starved of street cred . . . it is an image that does not at first sight equate with the queues for returns outside West End musicals - or indeed inside the National for Hare's own trilogy. Yet it is broadly correct. The theatre is not trendy.

The clutch of Andrew Lloyd Webber/Cameron Mackintosh musicals, backed with millions and hugely promoted both here and across the Atlantic, can draw in full houses and create instant stars. But straight drama is not the stuff of style magazines; its leading lights rarely, if ever, become household names or magazine covers on the strength of their theatrical work alone. A host of actors, from Derek Jacobi to Juliet Stevenson, were 'discovered' by television and movies after theatre audiences had followed their work for years. In the auditoria young people are still in the minority and black people almost totally absent.

To judge from an extract of his new year lecture, published at the weekend, Hare was psychologically shaken when an eminent style journalist was introduced to him at a party and asked: 'Are you the one who wrote the play where that baby is stoned in its pram?'

Hare was not upset that the journalist had never heard of him, but 'puzzled that a man of his proven sophistication' appeared not to know the name of the author of this modern classic (Edward Bond) let alone the name of the play itself (Saved).

Yet, alarmingly, Hare revels in theatre's aloofness from popular culture, concluding that 'the theatre's special strength and importance in the post-war period lies precisely in its isolation from what is called the media explosion'.

That way closure notices lie. Certainly, theatre should not submit to the desire for instant gratification that many youngsters brought up on Hollywood films demand. Good plays can be difficult and need concentration. I am not an admirer of Shakespeare having to be 'translated' in schools, of Romeo and Juliet automatically being played out as Protestant versus Catholic or Muslim girl smothered by her parents; with the power of the imagery and verse being lost.

But I am very much in favour of making the experience of theatre more accessible and enjoyable. It is not a trivial or tangential concern: the work on stage cannot be seen in isolation from the whole experience of play-going.

Too often it is too expensive and uncomfortable, something which theatre critics or associate directors in free seats rarely experience. Has Hare sat in the upper tier at the National's Cottesloe Theatre recently? I found myself looking down on the actors' heads. I never saw several of the cast's faces throughout the performance.

Then again, how serious is the desire to attract young people? West End cinemas have half-price tickets for kids. Why don't West End producers, who claim they want a young audience, dig into their profits to encourage teenagers? Why not indeed make all seats pounds 5 on the usually ill-attended Monday nights, to sell theatre to new and poorer audiences - as the BAC theatre centre in Battersea, south London, has successfully done with its 'pay what you can' evenings?

I often ask people in the theatre why television does not run a theatre programme like Barry Norman's Film '93 It would increase awareness about what's on and bring the issues and personalities involved to a far wider audience. The answer lies in the fact that the overtime rates charged by people in the theatre, backstage staff and actors, for allowing cameras in - even to a dress rehearsal - are prohibitive. Again, theatre cuts its own throat.

There is a deeper question to be answered. Hare, perhaps unconsciously, makes reference to the problem. When he laments that his questioner had never heard of Saved, he notes that alongside Look Back in Anger and Waiting for Godot it was one of the three most famous and influential European plays of the post-war period.

All three plays were written within 20years of the end of the Second World War. It is now nearly 50 years since the end of the war. Why has theatre ceased to be a touchstone of popular culture? David Mamet's Oleanna has rather more questions to ask about feminism than Thelma and Louise, but is known about by a far smaller constituency. Modern novels, even for those who have not read them, are more of a talking point than contemporary drama.

Why should this be so? First, television, which inevitably is the main way young people come in contact with drama, has subtly redefined the genre. The BBC will speak of its drama output and talk about EastEnders; ITV boasts of having drama every night - three times a week it is The Bill. These are lively, well-made programmes, but they don't prepare you to concentrate on the development of character and issues over two and a half hours.

Second, the Eighties did not produce British playwrights who could speak to a generation in the way that Osborne and the angry young men connected with the young of the Fifties, or Pinter and Stoppard engaged students intellectually in the Sixties and Seventies.

And third, like it or not, the theatre can be attractive to the mass of the young only if it is trendy to go. Live performance at its best is electrifying. But the young are choosy and the competition for their money is intense. Make the ambience comfortable and attractive, and the prices affordable, and it should not just be the multiplex cinemas which enjoy a boom in attendances.

(Photograph omitted)