David Lister: The Week in Arts

Warning: smoking is a cultural hazard
Click to follow

They're caring, sharing places are theatres, with the audience's interests at heart. Notices in the foyer always warn patrons if strobe lighting or gunshots are used in the performance.

But this week I saw a warning notice that I had never seen before, and which surely ushers in a new age of political correctness. I was at the Playhouse Theatre in the West End to see Pirandello's As You Desire Me with Bob Hoskins and Kristin Scott Thomas, and there in the foyer, on a large notice, was the solemn warning that "Cigarettes are smoked during this performance".

Unbowed, I strode in, determined to resist or at least passively inhale with fortitude whatever Kristin could blow at me. How that master of trickery Pirandello would have enjoyed this added element of danger and confusion that he could never have anticipated. There he was, like Noël Coward and numerous other playwrights, giving his characters cigarettes to smoke. How could they have known that it would in 2006 lead to theatre managements putting up notices for those of a nervous disposition?

Interestingly, copious amounts of alcohol were consumed (or at least there was the pretence that they were consumed), guns were fired at people and there was a horrific description of a gang rape. But there were no warnings of any of these things as patrons entered. Theatre reflects the age, and only smoking has been deemed a cultural hazard.

But then maybe theatre managements might answer that research shows that passive smoking is a real threat, and those in the front stalls are in danger. Perhaps audience members could even sue years later if they developed lung cancer. Whether the owners of the Playhouse Theatre, Miss Scott Thomas or the estate of Luigi Pirandello would be named in the lawsuit is a tricky question and one that Pirandello would have relished.

It's difficult to see how those in the upper circle would be in danger from passive smoking. Kristin can't blow quite that hard. Shouldn't the warning only apply to those in rows A to G of the front stalls? But maybe the warning isn't about passive smoking per se. Perhaps it's more a warning that audiences are about to see a social taboo on stage. It's not for the faint-hearted.

So there we have it. A new theatrical age has dawned. Presumably, from now on, there will be similar warning notices that cigarettes are smoked on stage when there are productions of works by Noël Coward and so many others. It is a rather delicious irony that the playwrights who have long been deemed the least dangerous now have a frisson of danger attached to them. Indeed, they are likely to carry health warnings.

Deep in the bowels of the Playhouse, I can imagine a literary manager reading through the canon of 20th-century plays, looking not just for evidence of cigarettes but any health hazards or activities that go against New Labour orthodoxy. Arnold Wesker's Chips with Everything could provoke no end of warnings in the foyer; and it's little wonder that the foxhunting scene from the film of Mary Poppins has been cut from the stage show.

This is what theatre needed. An art form that has driven itself to excesses of paranoia over whether it is relevant and has anything to say about contemporary life has suddenly proved itself to be at the cutting edge of political dialogue. This new concern for audiences' health and welfare shows that theatre isn't out of touch - even if it is responsible for one of the most idiotic developments in recent cultural history.

Triumph in adversity

The biggest story in the arts in recent weeks has been the turmoil at the English National Opera. Both the chief executive and chairman have resigned, and there has been massive criticism of the way top appointments were made. So, when the Olivier Award nominations were announced this week, one might have expected the ENO to be skulking in a corner while other companies walked off with the plaudits.

In fact, there were eight opera categories and ENO won all eight. Anthony Minghella's magical Madam Butterfly and other highlights of a successful season were judged to be more award-worthy than rival shows from Covent Garden. It doesn't mean that the backstage shenanigans at ENO have not been pitifully inept. But it does mean that the singers, musicians and producers who work there have carried on regardless, delighting audiences. For a company supposedly in crisis, that's not bad going. Perhaps stability would have been less inspiring for the performers.

* The chairman of the Arts Council has effectively been sacked. His contract is not being renewed by the Government after a period of disagreement. The Government is unhappy about the lack of attendance and participation in the arts among disadvantaged groups. The respected trade magazine Arts Industry does not even qualify the sacking as "effectively" on its cover this week. It says: "Fury over chair's sacking." The chairman is outspoken about it. He says: "This isn't about my job; it's about the arm's length principle." The very basis of the Government's relationship with the arts is at stake, it seems.

It sounds a great story. But not only has it not been on the front pages; it has barely been on any pages at all. But then this Arts Council chairman is the chairman of the Arts Council of Wales. But surely it's the same government and the same arm's length principle.