Nica Burns: Noises Off

Put your money where your mouth is, Jonathan – then call me a coward
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The Independent Online

Like most West End producers, I'm a romantic at heart. Believe me, there's nothing we would love more than to put on ensemble productions without a big name which would pack out to rave reviews – but history shows us that the audiences don't come. I know this from bitter experience. When I fell in love with Matthew Byam Shaw's touring production of See How They Run in 2006, I got my cheque book out. We put the show on in the smallest theatre I own, the Duchess. The cast was fantastically talented, the production had made me weep with laughter, and the reviews were to die for – and no one came. It cost me and my partner Max Weitzenhoffer £300,000, because we couldn't bear to close the show. Losing money when it takes a lot of work to earn it is always hard, but the heartbreak of a show that you really believe in failing is devastating.

So I know how Sir Jonathan Miller felt when he spoke last week about his frustration at the West End's failure to snap up his lauded Hamlet, which stars the unknown Jamie Ballard. In contrast, two Hamlets which will be seen in London this year – the RSC's and the Donmar's – will star "the Doctor" David Tennant and Jude Law. Both these actors have excellent theatre credentials, and are brilliant on stage; but to Miller, they are nothing but big names, and West End producers are celebrity lovers and cowards.

Cowards? Bravery is part of the job description: this is one of the toughest jobs in the world. It requires artistic instinct, business acumen and a very strong stomach. You're the last person to get paid, the first person to get blamed, and ultimately the poor soul on whose shoulders the responsibility will fall. A small play in the West End now costs over £400,000 to put on, and a musical millions; meanwhile, the weekly running costs just keep rising, to anything up to £70,000 for just a small-cast play.

The fact is, audiences want to see actors they know and admire. An evening in the theatre is an expensive night out, and it's a risk to see something unknown and unproven. Besides, the idea that famous actors aren't talented is insulting. You cannot sustain a career on good looks alone. Christian Slater brought a new audience to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and he was brilliant; Kathleen Turner, in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, was, according to Albee himself, perfect; David Schwimmer gave edgy playwright Neil LaBute his first commercial success in a critically acclaimed Some

Girls. There have always been famous actors on the West End stage, from Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn to Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. Most actors start in the theatre, and they don't lose those instincts. It's just a muscle that they need to warm up again.

Producers aren't faceless suits. We do it because we love theatre, and if we were obsessed with making money we would be doing something else. Artistic considerations are extremely important to us. I can't imagine casting an actor I didn't believe could play the part. I'm working on a show which I've just postponed because I can't find the right four people for it at the same time. We're all desperate to get it right.

Miller is a brilliant, polemical director, but he hasn't understood that it's the public who call the tune. I don't see him putting his hand up to take the risk. So let me reiterate the offer I've made: £300,000 will bring the production to the West End, and I will gladly rent him a theatre. Come on, Jonathan: put your money where your mouth is.

Nica Burns is chief executive and co-owner of Nimax theatres

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