Last Sunday night I went to a most unusual rock concert. The stage was set right next to the Inland Revenue headquarters, the 3,000-strong crowd standing between the tax collectors' offices and the Courtauld Institute in the courtyard of Somerset House. I felt a warm glow, not just because of the beauty of the setting, with the red lamps throwing the classical architecture into glorious relief, nor even because of the ethereal (the high art word for sexy) Alison Goldfrapp on stage, but because the Somerset House rock concerts were to some degree the culmination of a campaign close to my heart.
In the Nineties I campaigned in The Independent for the courtyards of cultural and historic venues to be cleared of cars and opened up to the public. Somerset House, the British Museum and the Royal Academy eventually came into line. Horseguards Parade, venue for Trooping the Colour, proved more difficult because, surprise, surprise, it was where the staff at 10 Downing Street parked.
My intention was that such venues as the Somerset House courtyard could be used for outdoor cafés, sculptures and chamber music concerts. I confess I never envisaged ice skating in the winter and pop concerts in the summer. But how well it all works - with one reservation. The river terrace of Somerset House has been opened up for wining and dining; but the alleged views over the river are completely blocked by trees. Westminster Council has refused a request to cut back the trees; but I'm sure that in most capital cities a compromise could be reached whereby the trees certainly remain, but with the branches trimmed to enable audiences at concerts, and visitors to the complex's Courtauld, Gilbert Collection and Hermitage exhibitions, to enjoy a river view over a drink.
Still, at least we now have an attractive rock venue in the centre of London, and there are precious few of those. With Moby playing at the Eden Project in Cornwall and Nick Cave at Tate Modern, it's becoming clear that rock, dance and pop music can flourish away from the arenas, clubs and festival sites.
So, how's about next year having Trooping the Colour in the morning on Horseguards Parade with Goldfrapp doing a gig there in the evening? Somerset House has shown that a stylish setting can enhance the music. For a rock concert, small can be surprisingly beautiful.
¿ In the theatre, by contrast, too much emphasis is put on the small and the intimate. Many of the greatest productions of recent years have been in studio-sized venues, with directors unwilling to transfer them to larger spaces, convinced that a bigger setting would destroy the concept. This has deprived many people of the chance to enjoy those productions. I'm thinking of the Donmar's Uncle Vanya and Sir Richard Eyre's inspiring production of King Lear at the Cottesloe. Of course, productions designed for a studio space do lose something in a larger auditorium, but at least larger audiences could enjoy great performances - for example, in the productions I mentioned, by Simon Russell Beale and Ian Holm.
But we might be about to witness a change of directorial philosophy. The first night of David Mamet's Edmond on Thursday, which witnessed a triumphant and belated debut by Kenneth Branagh at the National Theatre, was put on in the NT's largest auditorium, the Olivier, though the play would seem to be written for a much smaller space. The rapturous applause suggested that the director Ed Hall had succeeded in staging this uneven but marvellously acted and essentially small piece in a large venue.
Chatting to the National's artistic director Nicholas Hytner afterwards, it was evident that he saw considerable scope for putting on many more studio pieces in the larger theatres. It's a tremendous challenge; but I think it will work, and it will show that directors can be a little too obsessed about the intimacy of a venue. Great acting and great productions deserve to be seen by much larger audiences than those who are on a mailing list.
If something is lost in transferring a production from a small space to a full-size venue, then much more is gained by showing great acting and direction to bigger and newer audiences.
*¿ I'm a little worried about Mr Hytner. The National's new director seems to have another success with the Mamet play, following Henry V and Jerry Springer: the Opera. It's actually becoming quite hard to get a ticket at the NT. This is not good for the street cred of an artistic director. One needs a flop, something the critics will rediscover 20 years on and say "That man Hytner, he was ahead of his time". Besides, the club of directors of national arts institutions isn't comfortable with praise, preferring to see its number vilified for mismanagement and poor artistic judgement, in order to feel misjudged and misunderstood. The National needs a flop, so that we can all get back to our familiar positions.Reuse content