David Lister: The Week in Arts

A seat with a restricted view should be free
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I enjoy the reader reviews that appear on weekdays in The Independent. It is not just their idiosyncratic nature, sometimes passionate enthusiasm or addresses from venues in the UK that national newspapers don't tend to reach. It is something even more important that sets the reader reviewers apart from the professional critics. They sit in the cheap seats.

Professional critics are always carefully placed in the best seats by producers and promoters. And the actual price of the seat they occupy is always left off the ticket they are given. So most theatre critics haven't the slightest idea of the cost of their seat. And few, if any, will be able to remember the last time they climbed the stairs to the upper circle – or what the view is like from there.

Such things are important. All the critics, for example, gave rave reviews to a new theatre, the Rose, that has just opened in Kingston upon Thames. It was set up by the indefatigable Sir Peter Hall. And it is in many ways a triumph for the veteran director. But as well as the raves for the building from the critics in their top-price seats, there was a review in yesterday's Independent from two teachers, Marilyn Mason and Helen Nicholls. Their piece said: "Side circle seats do not have a full view of the stage. Significant action has to take place centre stage or risk being invisible to some. We were disappointed that when Vanya shot the Professor that we couldn't see whether he had missed him or killed him."

Chekhov virgins who might be thinking of seeing the production should turn away now, as I am going to reveal a part of the plot. Vanya does indeed miss. It is one of this glorious play's many poignant and affecting moments. And it is a key moment, so the fact that some of the audience can't actually see it – and in a brand new theatre – is worrying.

Sir Peter spoke out recently against actors who cannot be heard from the stage. But great moments in drama that cannot be seen are also a cause for concern. I saw Sir Peter's Vanya and thoroughly enjoyed it, but I was in a good seat. I also saw this week and loved (also from a good seat) the Royal Opera's La Traviata. But again I was struck by how many seats do not have such a perfect view. Indeed, the ROH brochure has a priceless paragraph devoted to detailing the many varied forms of restricted views that there are in the auditorium. They can be "on the side of the auditorium" or "in a box closest to the stage" or "a pillar, supporting column or safety rail obstructs the view".

Even if you choose to stand, thinking you will at least then be head and shoulders above the people sitting in front of you, don't count your chickens. It turns out that "some standing positions are behind tall seats".

Independent readers will no doubt continue to inform in the reader reviews what the view and the show are like from all these restricted-view seats. One certainly won't learn that information from the critics of any national newspaper or magazine.

Of course, in a horseshoe-shaped auditorium you cannot have every seat with a perfect view. And a horseshoe-shaped auditorium can produce not only good acoustics but also a sense of real intimacy between actors and the audience.

But I do wonder if these restricted-view seats shouldn't be free. It ought to be a legal condition for anyone putting on a stage show that the show is actually visible to the paying public. In 2008 that doesn't seem a lot to ask.

Barenboim the master

Who is the hottest ticket in town? It turns out that it isn't any of the thrusting teenage pop stars coming in their droves out of the Brit School in Croydon. It is a 65-year-old pianist at the Royal Festival Hall.

Daniel Barenboim, pictured, has taken a brief rest from conducting to return to his first love, the piano. He has come to the UK to play an eight-concert cycle of Beethoven's piano sonatas over a two-week period. The response to this solitary figure on stage has been remarkable.

The Festival Hall concerts seem to have become the place to be seen, with hordes of the great and the good turning up to pay tribute to a master. The concerts are even relayed to an overflow room for those who can't get tickets for the hall.

It's refreshing to find that a classical music recital is the hottest ticket in town. But it's a pity that the BBC has neglected to broadcast these recitals, either on Radio 3 or BBC4. How foolish of them to miss out on a moment of music history.

* I am delighted that the National Student Drama Festival has been removed from the list of funding casualties by the Arts Council. I have written before about this great annual event, which over the years has been the first public outing for many great performers. But my joy is tempered by the reason that it has now been saved.

Apparently the Arts Council decided that, though the event is now held in Scarborough, it was not a purely Yorkshire jamboree, but a national festival.

I wonder how long it took to work out that it was a national festival. I would have thought that there was a tiny clue in the title of the event, that little word "national". Was it that difficult to see?

We don't have to worry about the National Student Drama festival any more. We just have to worry about the quality (and the eyesight) of the people funding the arts.