We were stunned to learn that Shared Experience had lost all of its Arts Council funding. This is the theatre group responsible for two of the most memorable productions we have ever seen, ‘Mill on the Floss’ and ‘Anna Karenina’. This is a company that uses imagination to create drama in the smallest of spaces with minimal props and scenery. They never patronise the audience, and we can’t imagine how, given their track record, they would not tick every box for the Arts Council. We noted the irony of the Evening Standard using this picture to illustrate their piece on the cuts. The picture illustrates a new production of ‘Anna Karenina’ at the Arcola, which has won an increase in funding, without even mentioning that it was Shared Experience for whom the play was written 13 years ago.
Still, we thought, the Arts Council seems to have a plan – the cuts are part of a strategy, and funding was given out to create a fair spread across the UK. Perhaps there were just too many excellent theatre groups. We couldn’t possibly know.
And then we saw this in the Evening Standard – a very small piece on page 2, presumably included as a ‘good news’ story. We are told that at ratification stage, the chairwoman of the council’s London board, Veronica Wadley ‘fought for extra cash to protect’ the Hampstead Theatre and the Orange Tree in Richmond. We are not told if extra cash was found or whether this eleventh-hour decision was made at the expense of other applicants.
We can’t comment on the Orange Tree, but we do struggle to see the justification for the Hampstead Theatre and its artistic Director being singled out for special treatment, especially as it’s sandwiched between two of the most affluent areas in London – St John’s Wood and Hampstead:
* Artistic Director Edward Hall also runs the Propeller Theatre Company. We have heard many good things about this company, but haven’t seen any of their productions ourselves. We did recently discover that the company is all-male. We looked in vain for some rationale for this, but found only a vague reference to an all-male cast being ‘as Shakespeare intended’. Well, Shakespeare intended a lot of things, we are sure, and there was certainly no Arts Council funding in those days. We are particularly disturbed to find that Propeller have received much support for their work in schools encouraging youngsters to get into Shakespeare. The idea that it is deemed appropriate to provide public funding for a theatre company that claims it requires an all-male cast to create a ‘modern physical asthetic’ is frankly disturbing. Don’t girls want to get into Shakespeare too? In a world where decent parts for women are like hen’s teeth, this seems an odd choice indeed.
* For all we know, Edward Hall has produced fantastic work that we have never seen, but for Veronica Wadley to insist that ‘potential’ should be backed whilst contradicting herself by saying that ‘Ed Hall had already produced some outstanding plays’ seems illogical and it certainly contradicts our experience. In our opinion, Edward Hall is responsible for one of the worst Shakespeare productions we have ever seen – Sean Bean’s Macbeth. What a waste of an actor who should have been perfect for the role. We have blocked most of this traumatic experience out of our memory – but we do remember a scene where Bean, in a string vest, is felt up by the three (female) witches. Not pretty. This was not in some minor fringe theatre – it was in the West End. And it was in 2002.
So much for our faith in the Arts Council strategy. We shouldn’t be surprised that the Evening Standard printed this story, but the fact that Wadley was (presumably) happy to be quoted justifying her last-minute intervention says a lot – shouldn’t the Arts Council at least try to present a more professional front when attempting to justify the allocation of tax-payers money. We don’t pretend to have an overview of the situation. But we do expect the Arts Council to have a plan and stick to it.