SHAKESPEARE will soon be jostling with Racine in the West End of London. A sudden vogue for classical drama among audiences looks likely to change the theatre capital's reputation as the home to musicals and light comedy.
While television and radio are accused of dumbing down, theatre is going through an intellectually elevated phase.
Thelma Holt, a West End producer, will shortly announce that she is staging a production of Macbeth, starring Rufus Sewell in his first major Shakespearean role, and Sally Dexter, at the Queen's Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue early next year. It will be only the third unsubsidised Shakespeare production on Shaftesbury Avenue since the Second World War.
Ms Holt said yesterday she had no qualms about investing her money in a Shakespeare production in the heart of the West End. "Quite simply no one has sent me a better play to put on," she said. "I've got a young company and I'm confident of attracting a young audience. There's a new hunger for serious theatre. And, despite opinion to the contrary, the young are going to the theatre whenever they can afford it."
At the Albery Theatre in St Martin's Lane, the Almeida company is playing to full houses every night with two plays by the 17th-century French dramatist, Jean Racine, in repertory and starring Dame Diana Rigg and Toby Stephens. One play, Britannicus, is delivered in Alexandrine couplets.
Michael Billington, the drama critic and biographer of Harold Pinter, described having two Racine plays in the West End as "a minor miracle".
But the miracle has had an unfortunate side-effect. Ironically, the vogue for classical drama has rebounded on one of the greatest directors of the genre, Sir Peter Hall, and is likely to deprive audiences of more high-class drama next year. He has been asked by the commercial owners of The Old Vic to bring his company there next year and run the theatre with an artistic policy. But he revealed that when he asked the Arts Council for financial help, he was told there was already sufficient serious theatre in London.
Sir Peter said: "I have the actors and I have the programme. But I don't have the money. I have asked the Arts Council for a guarantee against loss - not a subsidy - of half a million pounds a year for the next three years. They have been sympathetic, but unencouraging. Their view is that there is sufficient serious theatre in London."
The plight of the Sir Peter Hall company since a falling-out between Sir Peter and his financial backer and producer Bill Kenwright, casts a shadow over the renewed interest in serious theatre in London. As things stand Sir Peter's production of Alan Bennett's play Kafka's Dick, which opens next week, will be the company's last.
Sir Peter added: "Kafka's Dick marks the end of my association with Bill Kenwright and, at the moment, any further productions with my company in the West End.
"Sally Greene's new theatre trust that now runs The Old Vic has asked me if I could return there next year, after the run of Amadeus, in order to continue the work. A decision will be made about this in December, but it is not looking hopeful."
Last year, Sir Peter did a series of 13 plays at The Old Vic. He describes it as "the happiest year of my professional life". He is urging that once again a theatre so famous for a classical repertoire should be "run with a policy".
Jonathan Kent, who directed the two Racine plays, said: "I think there could be more serious theatre in London. There is a need for this sort of theatre. We're constantly being told that theatre is dying and the younger generation isn't interested. It's simply not true. These plays are playing to 97 per cent audiences.
"When we suggested putting on these productions in the West End people looked polite but astonished.
"But I managed to get together the finest ensemble acting in this country at the moment and the finest verse speakers. Diana Rigg is a great leading actress, but this isn't celebrity theatre."
Phedre - by Jean Racine, at the Albery Theatre
Britannicus - by Jean Racine, Albery
The Weir - by Conor McPherson, Duke of York's
Amadeus - by Peter Shaffer, Old Vic
An Inspector Calls - by J B Priestley, Garrick
Filumena - by Eduardo de Filippo, Piccadilly
Kafka's Dick - by Alan Bennett, Piccadilly
Macbeth - by William Shakespeare, Queen's
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