Cultural life does not begin and end in London

Instead of threatening the RSC with a loss of grant, we should salute it as truly national
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The Independent Online

The Royal Shakespeare Company is in trouble again. This week it was strongly criticised by the London Assembly for its non-appearance in London. The Assembly accused the RSC of "losing the plot" and urged the Arts Council England to withhold further funding until the company secured a permanent home in the capital. In its report, the assembly's culture committee said the RSC had failed to meet a condition of its annual grant by being unable to transfer its traditional run of plays from Stratford-upon-Avon to London.

Forgive me if I disagree. I'd have thought there was just as strong a case to be made that the National Theatre, Royal Opera, Royal Ballet and English National Opera were failing to take their productions round the country. The National Theatre does to a degree, the others barely at all. But when one of our national companies fails to appear in London, all hell breaks loose and there are demands that it be parted from its cash.

I took my daughter to see Henry Goodman's memorable Richard III at Stratford-upon-Avon this summer and we had a terrific time. A better time, I'd say, than if we had seen it in London. Shakespeare's birthplace, a beautiful theatre on the river, a sense of history, all contrived to make a much better outing than a stressful Tube ride into the West End or the Barbican.

Why is it, I wonder, that so often in the arts we think a company has to be in London to qualify for artistic credentials? The most ludicrous example, of course, is the Olivier Awards, theatre's most prestigious prize, but available only to productions that have been on in London. You can see the most astonishing work at the Sheffield Crucible, Theatr Clwyd, the Birmingham Rep, the Manchester Royal Exchange or, come to that, the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, but none of it will be eligible for an Olivier - unless it manages a West End transfer. How patronising to the rest of the country that those few weeks in London supposedly make a piece of theatre artistically worthy.

I'm reminded of a marvellous episode of Yes, Minister in which the minister threatened to make the National Theatre "truly national", take away its building and make it a touring company. The actor portraying the head of the National Theatre had apoplexy.

Instead of threatening the RSC with a loss of grant, we should salute it for being "truly national", basing itself outside of London, encouraging not just tourists, but Brits as well, to visit Shakespeare's birthplace. We should salute it, too, for touring to other cities, and putting on productions in leisure centres and school halls around the country.

Cultural life doesn't have to begin and end in London. The RSC will probably come back to London for part of each year from next year but, as far as I'm concerned, it shouldn't feel obliged to. In leaving the capital and not transferring all its productions to London it made a cultural statement. The Arts Council should increase its grant for that.

¿ The other night I noticed someone going into the Gielgud Theatre on London's Shaftesbury Avenue with an opened bottle of wine - presumably for an interval drink. It was a radical gesture, but hardly a surprising one, when you consider that drink prices at theatres owned by the Really Useful Group now include: small bottle of beer, £3.20; smallish glasses of wine, £4.20. You can, of course, buy a whole bottle for that. Surely Andrew Lloyd Webber's team at the Really Useful Company must realise that they could make more money if the drinks were cheaper, as customers would buy more drinks. I imagine they would enjoy the productions more too if they didn't have to swallow those outrageous interval prices.

¿ I've just paid a visit to Las Vegas. No art there, you might think. In fact, there are two small but perfectly formed art exhibitions. One, mounted by the Guggenheim, is in the bizarre surroundings of the Venetian Hotel, complete with its gondolas and replica of the Grand Canal. The other, housed in its own gallery, is from the collection of Steve Wynn, the billionaire casino and hotel owner and Mr Big of Las Vegas. What is particularly fascinating about this compact collection of Impressionists and Old Masters (and a picture of Wynn himself by Andy Warhol) is that Wynn provides the audio commentary. It's not to be missed. Describing Pierre-Auguste Renoir for listeners, Wynn explains: "Though he has a fancy name, he was a sort of street guy." I shall think of Renoir henceforth as the street guy with a fancy name. I shall also remember another aspect of Wynn's commentary, something which would be a wonderful practical joke if it had been intended as such. On at least two occasions Wynn encourages the spectator to lean across the rope to get closer to the painting, in one case to see Rembrandt's signature. I did so, immediately set off the alarm and was reprimanded by a warder. "But it was your boss who told me to get nearer to the painting," I protested. "I know," replied the warder. "Happens all the time."