David Lister: Alas, poor audiences at the RSC

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The Independent Online

It won't go down in history among the great campaigns in journalism, but I once persuaded the Royal Shakespeare Company to launch a coach service between its London and Stratford theatres. I had been bemoaning in print the absurdity of there being no direct link between the capital and one of the greatest tourist attractions in the world.

That coach service was disbanded after a train link was started between Stratford and London. But I wondered this week whether it should not be relaunched. I also wondered, not for the first time, whether arts organisations take seriously enough or seriously at all the difficulties of their audiences in getting to and from the venue.

I heard this week of a teenage girl who had been to see David Tennant's Hamlet at Stratford-upon-Avon, and had to check into a hotel afterwards after she discovered that there were no trains back to London after the show finished. "Yes," says an RSC spokeswoman matter of factly, "that happens quite a lot."

In other words, people of all ages, unprepared and without any overnight bag, have a major added expense and major added inconvenience. A theatre company cannot shrug this off, cannot say it is a matter for the train companies, cannot think that its responsibility ends when the curtain comes down.

Let's look at the Hamlet case. The curtain comes down at 10.50pm. The last train from Stratford to London is 11pm. Having seen the production, I certainly think David Tennant is worth staying to applaud, and applaud most vigorously. But, even if one were churlish enough to exit without applauding, and even if one were fit enough to sprint across town to the station, the chances of catching that train are next to zero. Usain Bolt might make it if he is having a taste of Shakespeare after the Olympics, but not the rest of us. So one is left with the option of a £25 taxi ride to Coventry station where you might just be in time for a train, if, of course, you can find a taxi. Oh, and you have to get to Coventry and on the train in less than half an hour. No wonder the Stratford hotels are doing good business in last-minute residents requesting a room. And, as British hotels don't come cheap, you're talking about an extra £90 or so on the price of your ticket.

The RSC says it has ongoing talks with the train companies. But ongoing talks are not enough. If it cannot bring about a late-night train from Stratford to London, then it should bring back the coach service. It is spending many millions of pounds on remodelling its main theatre in Stratford. Using a fraction of that to get its audience home would be money well spent.

There is often talk of integrated transport systems. What I would like to see are integrated transport and arts systems – proper liaison between bus and train services and major arts venues. People go to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Shakespeare performed. What on earth is the point of the train station closing as people are just coming out of the theatre? And if the train chiefs won't budge, then perhaps the performances should start earlier. Are these things thought about and discussed at all?

The RSC is not alone in thinking audience travel is not a major concern for arts venues. I have been to Sir Peter Hall's new theatre, the Rose, in Kingston-upon-Thames. I shall not go again. Signs to the theatre magically cease more than a mile from the theatre. Nearby parking is in shopping-related car parks, fine for matinees, but closed in evenings.

Travel, road signs, parking – are these really matters for artistic directors? Yes, they have to be. The play's the thing, but audiences need to get to it, and indeed get home again.

A close shave with the Ritchies

The critics don't seem to have liked Guy Ritchie's new film RocknRolla very much, but I suspect the public will do. Certainly, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie when I attended the premiere last Monday evening.

I found it a thoroughly entertaining roller coaster of a ride through gangster London, and I said so when I chatted to Mr and Mrs Ritchie afterwards. Mr Ritchie was in good form at the after-show party. Mrs Ritchie was rather more subdued, but then I suppose she does have to rest her voice for the little matter of a world tour. Perhaps I was fortunate in chatting to the pair before Mrs Ritchie's bodyguards arrived. It was none too impressive to watch them forcibly push people out of the way when the time came for her to leave, and these were, after all, invited guests.

It struck me as ironic that the heavies in Guy Ritchie's movie are vulnerable and rather witty. His wife's gorilla heavies were neither. He clearly has been doing his research away from home.

It's better than a blockbuster

This weekend is the last chance to see perhaps the most controversial exhibition of the year. Radical Light at the National Gallery, paintings by the Divisionist movement in Italy, has been controversial because it is a group of artists that few of us know, and is part of the gallery's director Nicholas Penny's attempt to eschew blockbusters in favour of shows that add to our knowledge and appreciation of art.

I suspect that Mr Penny will have to compromise on this aim, as the attendance figures for the Divisionists have not been great. What this has meant, though, is the luxury of seeing an exhibition without having a crowd around every canvas.

I found the exhibition a knockout and a real validation of Mr Penny's policy. These Italian artists, who were painting at the same time as the French Impressionists at the turn of the 20th century, not only experimented with light and form, but they were also immensely political. The portrayals of industrial unrest and urban poverty are socialist art at its most affecting.

There are just two days to go. Don't miss it.

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