With an air of inevitability, product placement is creeping from novels, films and television to the stage. A play called Skin, currently touring the South, is managing to slip in plugs for bras, crisps, sauce, and fortified wine - 'Could I travel from Heathrow to Camden in nothing but my Triumph bra?', 'Would you like a coffee or an iced glass of Cisco?' - alongside its theme of mixed-race relationships and police brutality to black people.
After the Arts Council turned Skin down for a grant last year, playwright/actress Sara Mason decided to take matters into her own hands. 'I was sick of waiting around for work. I realised there were lots of brand names in the play, so I started ringing up companies and asking for money in return for a plug. Most of them thought it was a hoot.'
With the pounds 2,000 she raised from sponsorship, and another pounds 2,000 from letting her flat, Mason managed to put the play on for three weeks in south London, tempting the audience with tastings of Cockspur rum to complement the on-stage sightings. Things started to look up. This year the Arts Council coughed up pounds 15,800 and various bra, crisp, and drink manufacturers supplied another pounds 5,000, which meant she could set up a 13-week tour. The Association for Business Sponsorship for the Arts (Absa), impressed by her cheek, added another pounds 1,200. All very entrepreneurial, but what about integrity? How can the audience trust writing on mixed race, when it is riddled with mixed motivation?
Mason is pragmatic. 'All roads lead to Rome,' she laughs. 'It's a good play, saying important things. And let's face it, these days everyone knows how much is pitched towards marketing - even choosing the name of the play. There's nothing sly about the product plugs - they're presented as a complicit joke between the audience and actors.
'We're used to product placement on the screen. When you watch a television play it's interrupted by commercials. People enjoy watching the ads in the cinema - actors performing ads could be very funny before the start of a play. Why do we have to be so precious about theatre?'
The Royal Shakespeare Company, of course, is heavily sponsored by Allied Lyons, which owns breweries and makes cakes. Two years ago, there was adverse publicity when an RSC Hamlet, sponsored by Unilever, had a promotional display for Persil in the foyer. But RSC spokeswoman Zoe Mylchreest still can't see products finding their way on stage. Not even if Persil had sponsored Macbeth? How about Allied Lyons and Twelfth Night? 'Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more (wink at audience) cakes and ale?'
'I really don't think product placement is a logical step for the theatre,' Mylchreest says. The English National Opera is not adverse to it, though. Its house champagne finds itself in the spotlight from time to time, and Absa cites a growing number of small productions sipping, for example, tea from a sponsor on stage. The Bristol Old Vic, it says, featured the Wall's ice-cream character Max the Lion in its panto last year, and the audience loved it.
Drawing the line is the problem, of course. Some integrity must be preserved. And Sara Mason does show worrying signs of product placement frenzy. 'Damn, I should have asked Rolls-Royce for some money,' she says. 'I had a black guy driving a BMW then changed it to a Rolls because it was more unusual. Mind you, I could always try BMW as well and change it back if they say yes.' But would she give up on the products if the play started making money? 'Oh, I don't think so,' she says. 'If rich companies are getting their products promoted anyway - why shouldn't they pay?'
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