David Lister: The Week in Arts

If you want top billing, call yourself Aardvark
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The Independent Online

Dame Diana Rigg does not often get angry. Usually she is pictured with a half-smile playing around her face. For decades she has epitomised a very English elegance with a hint of self-mocking irony, probably all dating back to her tongue-in-cheek performance as Emma Peel in the 1960s TV show The Avengers.

But suddenly Dame Diana has let off steam, and over a rather peculiar issue. She has written a newspaper article bewailing the habit of listing actors alphabetically on theatre publicity material at our main subsidised venues. The only way you can get to the top of the bill, she argues, is to change your name to Aardvark. Dame Diana Aardvark? No, it will never catch on.

The example that has caused her to be enraged is the forthcoming National Theatre production of Much Ado About Nothing, starring Simon Russell Beale and Zoë Wanamaker. Only, if the publicity material is to be believed, it isn't starring those two acclaimed performers at all. It is merely featuring a company of actors, and Mr Russell Beale is named about three-quarters of the way down as is customary for the R surnames (isn't it, Dame Diana), while poor Ms Wanamaker's name demands that you read right to the end of the long list.

Diana Rigg thinks this is monstrous. She says: "Their faces are on the poster, but their names are not – yet together the play and these two actors will sell more seats than the rest of the cast, the director, designing and lighting put together. But their names are simply part of an alphabetical cast list. I challenge the National to justify this hypocrisy. Television lists its stars above the title; cinema does the same. So do the West End and Broadway. Why not subsidised theatre? My suspicion is that it's an inverted form of snobbery. Are subsidised theatres against stardom? If you want to get top billing, your surname has to be Aardvark. The fallout from this attitude is incredibly serious. A theatre that isn't celebrating success within its ranks is a theatre that isn't interested in gestating success in its ranks."

Dame Diana is right in the example she chooses. The theatrical highlight of December for me will be Much Ado, not because it is a diverting Shakespearean comedy, nor even because Nicholas Hytner is directing, but because Simon Russell Beale, the greatest stage actor of his generation, is starring. To play this down does seem perverse.

But our subsidised theatre companies are just that, companies. A star system does not fit with the ethos developed over four decades or more. We also, for better or worse, live in an age of director's theatre. No eyebrows are raised when a Peter Hall season is announced. When did you last hear of an actor's season?

And sometimes there are shows in which no well-known name appears. Yes, we all know Ian McKellen, who plays King Lear for the RSC, but look up the cast list of The Comedy of Errors and see if you recognise a single name. The blurb about the show on the RSC website mentions the director several times but no actors. The company, its ethos and reputation, and the director are the reasons for going.

Nevertheless, those company productions with no recognisable names are not always the case even at the RSC, and virtually never the case at the National. Audiences do still love seeing their favourite actors, and will book tickets because of them. If a theatre is lucky enough to have them, it should flaunt them. We are not all born equal, even in subsidised theatre.

St Catherine's dubious election

One of the highlights of the Renaissance Siena exhibition at the National Gallery is a coloured, wooden statue of St Catherine of Siena, carved in 1474. The show's curator, Luke Syson, has recounted in this paper how it was quite a coup to get this statue. It is the centre piece of the church in the Contrada dell'Oca district of Siena, a key part of the district's spiritual life, and the local community had to vote on whether to allow it to travel to Britain.

That's true, but not quite the whole truth. I went to Siena this year and spoke to people there about this. It emerges that it wasn't quite the whole community that voted; it was the males who voted. Women were barred from registering a vote, and are not happy about this. Renaissance Siena will be a highlight of the National Gallery's year, and the statue of St Catherine a major attraction. But should our foremost art institution have been quite so pleased about a loan which involved such blatant discrimination?

* I must applaud the honesty of Sarah Weir, an executive director at the Arts Council. Ms Weir was favourite for the post of chief executive of the Arts Council, but it has gone instead to Alan Davey, a civil servant at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Ms Weir has now decided to leave the council. But not for her the usual homilies of wishing Mr Davey well and saying she wants to spend more time with her family.

Ms Weir told Arts and Industry magazine: "I applied for the job of chief executive at Arts Council, England, and was intensely disappointed not to get it ... I believe the time is right now for me to leave the Arts Council and move in to something else, as yet unknown."

Intensely disappointed; quitting; no job to go to. It's what we all really want to say after not landing a job we think we deserve.