Nick Serota, a hero when he was a client of Arts Council England, has made a catastrophic start at running it. As soon as he arrived to be its chair, Hampstead Theatre in north London was singled out from other playhouses in an otherwise modest round of cuts for a ridiculous 14 per cent. No reason given.
Because Hampstead is the second-largest public producer of new plays in London, behind only the Royal Court, this is a clear attack on new playwriting. It’s also an attack on success.
Like the Tate, Hampstead has hugely increased its audience in the past six years. You can imagine Serota’s reaction if the Tate had been punished for being popular. Hampstead’s worst crime is its name. It sounds as if it is in a prosperous part of London, so the thinking is that its outstanding new plays are seen exclusively by the well heeled. In reality, 80 per cent of its audience comes from outside the borough of Camden. Does Arts Council England even know?
Some good souls were upset this summer when, in an obscure American publication, I said that British theatre had recently been infected by European theatre practice. Playwrights’ plays were being swamped by directors’ projects. As it happens, I’ve spent my life experimenting with different ways of creating plays, but at the end of it all I strongly prefer the lone dramatist. Only a writer, working and thinking alone, is ever ahead of the curve. Most director-devised evenings offer the common wisdom, telling you what you already know. Such stuff is not theatre but piety. The giveaway is that there is no vocabulary for what the new maestros do. The coinage “theatre-maker” is as ugly as it is clumsy.
What’s worst about “directors’ theatre” is how politically reactionary it is, and how misogynistic. When half-naked women crawl for the umpteenth time across the stage on all fours, coated in blood, slime and foam, we’re told that their humiliation is meant to be a critique of patriarchy. Oh, yeah? In his diaries, Kenneth Tynan said that interpretation is what directors resort to when the actors aren’t good enough. He’s wrong, but you can see why he said it.
Doctors claim that the best protection against Alzheimer’s is an active brain. How can this be true? A universal characteristic of old age is to be doing constant mental arithmetic. I am writing this from a hotel in Belgrade. I was last in Belgrade in 1965, so I find myself calculating that’s 52 years ago, when it was in a place called Yugoslavia.
A few months ago, I had a very enjoyable tea with a boy – well, he’s no longer a boy; he’s the retired head of a theological college in Salisbury – whom I had last seen at school in 1960. That was 57 years ago. Life is now nothing but very big figures. It’s been 26 years since I met my wife.
My latest BBC series is being edited in the same building where I had my first job, editing film, in 1968. The building is Pathé House, and I make that 49 years. I first worked at the BBC in 1973. So that’s 44 years. And at the National Theatre in 1971. So that’s 46. If the theory were right, this ceaseless involuntary computation would mean that nobody ever got dementia.
At a reception in Tegucigalpa in 1984, I met a fellow sufferer. Looking at his watch, the president of Honduras told me the exact number of years, months, days, hours and minutes since he had given up smoking. He seemed more addicted to time than he’d ever been to nicotine.
I was in the region as part of a delegation to counter Henry Kissinger’s support for terrorism in Nicaragua. Those who loathe showbiz presence in politics will be horrified to know that our group boasted four playwrights and two distinguished actresses. For me, it was a deeply educational visit. I’ve understood ever since how impossible it is for any small country to exist democratically in the direct shadow of the US.
Our report, later launched with less fanfare than Kissinger’s from a pub on Long Acre, was infinitely more intelligent and humane, though our patience had been tried by dinner in Managua, Nicaragua, with the Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. When asked a question, he spoke for 65 minutes. We were all kicking each other under the table to deter anyone from asking a second.
My criterion for judging politicians used to be: “Would I want this person to run a theatre I worked in?” But lately it’s been: “Would it be worth my time to ask this person a question?” The entire cabinet falls at this fence, with the possible exception of David Davis. People have forgotten, but when Tony Blair first appeared in public, he outperformed every politician I’d seen before or have seen since because first he listened to the question put to him and then he answered it. You would think it an obvious gift, but it’s astonishingly rare.
I’m fond of the Guardian. I’ve been reading it for – here we go again – 55 years. I must have contributed thousands of pounds to what it calls “the future of quality journalism”. I’ve relished its campaign against firms that fail to pay the national minimum wage. Last year, I accepted a request to write a 2,000-word introduction to The Bedside Guardian. I was told that in return for such an honour, I couldn’t expect to be paid. I replied: “Oh, I see, you don’t want me to write for the Guardian, you want me to intern for it?” The commissioning editor laughed weakly when I asked whose was the skinny cappuccino and who had ordered the masala chai.