A dramatic move, but it is wrong and misguided

The decision shows where theatre stands in the cultural priorities of the left

The New Statesman has parted company with its theatre critic. That is none of my business. But what I do find a little alarming is the reason that the editor, Peter Wilby gave, when explaining in the press his decision not just to let his theatre critic go but to dispense with theatre reviews.

He said: "We just decided not to have a theatre column. It was felt that it didn't seem to be getting a lot of readers and there are many New Statesman readers who can't get to London theatres. If there was a new play by David Hare every week, then we would have one but there isn't.''

This strikes me as important; utterly wrong and misguided, but important. It is important because the New Statesman remains the leading organ of left-wing thinking in Britain. And the decision to axe theatre coverage shows where theatre stands in the cultural priorities of the left today. Let us leave aside - depressing as it is - the implied comment that theatre is only of interest to the left in Britain if it is staging overtly political plays. This doesn't seem to be a cultural rationale applied to film, television or music, but never mind. There are two other issues that Peter Wilby's statement raises about political theatre.

First, he implies that without David Hare there is a lack of it. That could not be further from the truth. We are in the midst of a plethora of political theatre. At the National Theatre, Michael Frayn's Democracy opened last Tuesday. Its title gives a pretty broad hint that Frayn's play about the fall of the West German Chancellor Willy Brandt explores the nature of politics. Closer to home, there will soon be a dramatisation of the Hutton inquiry at the Tricycle Theatre.

In the past week or so, three overtly political plays have opened, The Illustrious Corpse at the Soho Theatre, The People Next Door at Stratford East and Nine Parts of Desire at the Bush. I hear, too, that Alistair Beaton, the writer of the acclaimed satire Feelgood, is working on a follow-up called Follow My Leader about Bush and Blair. To take just one of these, People Next Door, a satire on the effects of 11 September on a British council estate, takes political satire to the very edge of acceptable comedy.

But even with all that and more going on, the New Statesman misses the point. Political theatre is not just drama that contains overt comment on current events. Theatre at its best is always political. David Hare is just a small part of that spectrum of debate. Does the New Statesman really reflect left-wing opinion in not recognising that?

The actor Corin Redgrave wrote in this newspaper on Thursday how Farquhar's 18th-century comedy The Recruiting Officer, which opens the new Garrick Theatre in Lichfield next Monday, and in which Redgrave stars, gives a dramatic counterpoint to the way British opinion is shaping over Iraq.

But political theatre goes beyond that. The splendid revival of Arthur Miller's The Price at the Apollo Theatre in London explores the politics of family relationships in the long shadow of national economic collapse. Arthur Miller was a political playwright well before the phrase became fashionable.

In fact, I think it a great pity that the phrase ever did become fashionable. Political theatre is a tautology. The best theatre is always political, and it is theatre rather than film or television that is currently providing an electrifying forum for political thought in Britain. The New Statesman might even care to sample the greatest of political playwrights, Shakespeare. As Nicholas Hytner's production of Henry V at the National Theatre illustrates, that play anticipated to an uncanny degree the present concerns over a leader with unshakeable convictions taking the nation to a morally dubious war. Politics permeates every one of Shakespeare's plays. Hell, he's even better than David Hare.

¿ Themed seasons are much in vogue. And one can see why companies and venues like them. The implicit suggestion is that ticket buyers will get more out of the experience if they come more than once, and indeed see the whole season. Sometimes, though, the frantic search for a theme becomes fatuous. The new Royal Ballet season boasts in its publicity material a season of one-act ballets by "leading male choreographers''. As the vast majority of choreographers in the world are, and ever have been, male, this is not exactly newsworthy or even a very convincing theme. But I suppose that "a season of ballets by choreographers" wouldn't get anyone a pay rise in the Royal Opera House marketing department.

¿ It is not unknown for me to harp on about ticket prices. But perhaps there is just as big a campaign to be fought about the money we spend before we even take our seats. The Rolling Stones play Wembley Arena this weekend; and, as we know by now, it will be a stirring show. The top prices are a pretty staggering £150; but that is not the whole story. The cost of parking at Wembley has risen to £14, and a programme costs £12, making £26 before you sit down. It's only rock 'n' roll, but that's a rip-off.

d.lister@independent.co.uk

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