Losing the plot at the National Theatre

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The Independent Online
Art, a new play by the French writer Yasmina Reza, is packing them in at the Wyndham's ... indeed it's standing room only for this old- fashioned West End comedy about a Parisian dermatologist who buys a Minimalist white picture which upsets his relationships with his two best friends.

The three men are played by Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Ken Stott. The play is about theatre, not art, though Minimalism comes in for the expected middlebrow bashing.

Perhaps the scene the audience enjoys most comes right at the beginning. Finney, as the representative of bluff common sense, struggles not to say what he thinks of someone who's just spent 200,000 francs on a white painting - and fails. He has the audience wholly with him. It says a lot for Courtenay, the dermatologist, that he is able to bring the audience round, if not to his side, at least to thinking of him as something more than a mere sucker. But then the whole point of this sort of entertainment is to watch actors exercise their craft. Stott has the best speech, and delivers it superbly. In the old days we would have called Art a feast of good acting.

I found myself thinking: what if the producers had been bolder, and had Finney playing Paul Johnson? The British audience would have enjoyed that, surely, even if it left the tourists puzzled. Stott, the intermediary figure who just wants the others to be nice to each other, could be one of the Sunday paper fence-sitters, too scared to say what he really thinks (always supposing he ever dares think at all). And Courtenay could be a friend of the Tate, who once had dinner with Doris Saatchi, and is anxious not to be left behind.

But that would be another play, which might make the audience think about itself and its attitudes to art. In any case, the current London art scene is almost beyond satire. And I cannot imagine that any such play would make it to the stage of the National's Olivier theatre. One part of the British arts establishment would never dream of upsetting another. The "Royal" National Theatre, which wanted in its early days to put on a play attacking Churchill, has become a staid, respectable museum, devoted to reverent revivals.

It is a dreadful disappointment to those who supported its creation hoping for boldness, danger, innovation. Instead, it is safe, commercial, star- studded - exactly like the West End producers' theatre of Binkie Beaumont to which it was supposed to be the alternative.

Guys 'n' Dolls, the Broadway musical, is the National's latest offering. Jolly Jack Priestley's An Inspector Calls is an earlier example, precisely the sort of popular play people agitated against in the Fifties and Sixties when the National was seen as our only hope for a serious theatre. Repertory theatres have been doing it for years. So why should the National decide to revive it in the Nineties? Because the National is run by and for directors and designers.

An Inspector Calls is an example of how our subsidised theatre, instead of showing the way forward, has gone back a hundred years to spectacle and superficiality. It was against such silliness that Granville-Barker and Shaw produced their seasons at the Royal Court from 1904-1907. They wanted to make the theatre a place an intelligent person would at least not be ashamed to be seen in. Famously, the Royal Court is now the home of the English Stage Company, founded by George Devine in 1956 as a writers' theatre, very much with Granville-Barker and Shaw in mind.

And who is the new head of the English Stage Company? Why, the director of An Inspector Calls. And did he celebrate his appointment with a wonderful new play? No, he revived Arnold Wesker's The Kitchen, removing most of the theatre's seats in order to create a highly realistic restaurant kitchen.

It was a statement. Ours is a visual culture, it said; audiences reared on TV have to have naturalistic sets and everything made simple. And the audience duly oohed and aahed. Unkind people say that Stephen Daldry's ideal is a theatre so full of set that there's no room for an audience at all. They can only stand outside and watch the flats going in and out of the fly-tower.

A theatre in which design is king is no sort of theatre to me. In John Gabriel Borkman, another recent hit at the National, the designer wanted to emphasise the coldness of the house (not just psychologically - it's Norway, and snowing outside) by siting the stove upstage centre. Fine. But he also wanted such a steep rake that the doors to Mrs Borkman's drawing room, in order to be practical, let in a deadly pneumonic draught. Did the director query this absurdity? Clearly not - and he was Richard Eyre, Artistic Director of the National. This may seem a trivial example, but it's symptomatic of a deep disorder in the theatre's priorities.

John Gabriel Borkman is stuffed with stars, just like a Binkie Beaumont production. Directors and designers were highly regarded then, of course - Cecil Beaton more than most, though modern designers would shudder at his sets.

But at least Binkie did put on new plays; it wasn't all revivals. At the director-led National, the play's not the thing, it's the interpretation.

Directors are like art dealers; they prefer an old, established artist to a new one. Critics feel the same. You don't know where you are with the new; you have to show your hand, you may make a fool of yourself. And with a new play, it's the play, not the director, which attracts attention. But a new Hamlet, a new Cherry Orchard, a new Hedda Gabler, above all a new Death of a Salesman - there a director can show his wares.

Or he may like to have a go at one of those ridiculous old melodramas by Hugo or Schiller - shove in some stars and see if he can't wreak a little magic. (No, he can't, actually.) Thus we have revival after revival after revival, but scarcely ever a new play.

When the National started, the Cottesloe, we were told, was to be for new work - and for a time it was. Now, the National relegates new plays to its studio, where they are "workshopped" for weeks, with a director and actors, then disappear. This is as though critics were allowed into an artist's studio to repaint the canvases, then decide whether they're worth a show.

Just occasionally a new play is allowed on to the public stage, but usually only if it's by one of two or three very well-known favourite National writers. Sorry, but things were in fact better before the National was born.

It's proved not only a conservative but also a highly destructive institution, sucking the audience for serious theatre away from the West End, to which it will probably never go back. For one thing the National (except for the Cottesloe) is somewhere you can sit in comfort. The seats in most West End theatres, designed for smaller human beings, are now no longer acceptable to people with normal knees. You can park at the National, whereas getting to the West End is such an effort that people are discouraged before they start. And anyway, where are the stars?

They're at the National, doing revivals. It's only two or three nights a week, not the greatest money, but plenty of time to earn a serious living with voice-overs. The old idea of eight performances a week is anathema to those coddled darlings. And as for going on tour - please! Like all institutions, the National has become a cosy home for its inhabitants.

That's why the arrival of Art in a commercial West End is surprisingly cheering. People defend directors' theatre as more intelligent than actors', but I don't see much difference. (A genuine writers' theatre is a mirage). But here an actor - Sean Connery, whose wife saw the play in Paris and got him to buy it - has put it on for three other actors. Warchus, one of our best young directors, has agreed to stage it, even though it isn't a revival. It's as though a group of artists hired their own dealer to put on a show, and sold every picture. That it's not a great play doesn't matter. It's a play - about the only new one in the West End.

The author is a playwright.