David Lister: The Week in Arts

Time for a dramatic entry into the 21st century
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The Independent Online

The New Yorkers who heaped praise this week on Alan Bennett's The History Boys had one advantage over the Brits. We may have seen it first, but they could see it on a Sunday. Broadway's theatres, like theatres in much of Europe, are open on Sundays. In Britain, with a very few exceptions, they are not.

You can go to the cinema or a concert on a Sunday. But apart from the unlikely bedfellows of Shakespeare's Globe and The Lion King, you will struggle to find a theatre. This might be about to change. The redoubtable Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, is determined that Britain's flagship playhouse will open its three auditoria on Sundays. And he is, in a phrase little used in the arts for the past 20 years, taking on the unions.

The backstage union Bectu says that Sunday working should be voluntary. Mr Hytner says that it can be voluntary for existing union members but compulsory for new ones. Bectu says that would mean a two-tier work force. And so the negotiations, soon to become a film by Ken Loach, go on. My money is on Hytner to win this one. A man after my own heart, he introduced cheap seats at the National despite predictions of doom. And if he could do that, he can end this other obstacle that deters theatregoers.

Mr Hytner puts his argument rather poetically. It was a road to Damascus conversion, or at least a road to Waterloo Bridge. He says he was walking along London's South Bank and was struck how every building was open except his own. Cinemas and concert halls were doing good business and attracting family audiences. The theatre was dark. It's a nice story, but I'm sure that Mr Hytner has also studied changes in working patterns. We all work longer hours, and going to the theatre at the end of a long day is increasingly difficult. The thought of going at a weekend is ever more attractive. As Hytner knows, figures for Saturday matinees have been soaring.

Above all, Sunday is family day; and it is families for whom Sunday opening of theatres will be a particular boon. If theatres open, say, late afternoon on a Sunday, as they do in a number of other countries, then a theatre visit could be preceded by a family lunch and everyone would be home for the evening. Or, in the case of the National Theatre on the South Bank, it could be combined with a visit to the Hayward art gallery, the sort of dual enterprise that is next to impossible on a weekday. For an institution like the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, Sunday opening makes even more sense.

A visit could encompass a whole day in a beautiful setting, rather than a rushed job on a weekday evening. There's no end of reasons why Sunday opening is a good idea. The fact that West End theatres traditionally do badly on a Monday makes Monday closing and Sunday opening good financial sense for them. But most of all, it is the cultural anomaly that one can go to the cinema and art gallery, classical music and rock concert, but can't go to the theatre.

I'm a little worried that Hytner, perhaps in a spirit of conciliation, says that it may not have to be every Sunday that theatres are open. It does have to be. We would not allow the confusion of cinemas being open some Sundays but not others. The theatre unions are being offered double pay, by the way, for working Sundays. That gives them a privilege over many other workforces, including, dare I say, journalists. They now have to enter the 21st century and give rather more thought to their audiences.

Same problem, still no solution

Almost unnoticed, one of the more disturbing stories in the arts took place this week. The giant record company Warner Music closed down its classical music label. Now that's not some small label with a few little known instrumentalists. Warner Classics is the label that records some of the world's greats, including Daniel Barenboim.

If a major rock and pop label had closed down without warning, it would no doubt have attracted many column inches. The classical music world is rather less newsworthy. But it's in no less of a mess. The pace of change in the music industry cuts across all genres, and classical music fans are moving to downloading just like pop fans. Indeed, they are often the same people. There is also the problem that many aficionados have all the recordings of major orchestral works that they need. I'm not sure what the classical music record labels can do about that. And, judging by this week's shock, the classical music industry isn't sure either.

* Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus is playing at the RSC and at the Globe. Audiences, it seems, can't get enough of the once unfashionable, gory thriller.

But, I wonder if the play would ever have seen the light of day if Shakespeare had had to try his luck on Channel 4's The Play's The Thing. The reality TV show, which allows aspiring playwrights to compete for the honour of a West End run, makes them sum up their work for the camera in just a couple of sentences.

One young playwright, with some racy material, was warned by the most formidable of the judges, the West End producer Sonia Friedman, that he needed to imagine his mum or granny in the audience.

After hearing Shakespeare's two sentences about a couple of thugs raping a girl, hacking off her hands and cutting out her tongue, Miss Friedman would surely have sent him packing and told him to have more regard for his gran.

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