National Theatre

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:14 pm on 18th May 1989.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Alastair Goodlad Mr Alastair Goodlad , Eddisbury 10:14 pm, 18th May 1989

I welcome the opportunity to bring before the House the funding of the Arts Council and the Royal National theatre. As the House knows, the National theatre was a vision which took many years to become palpable. The House will wish to recognise the immense contribution made by Lord Olivier, by Lord Goodman, by the late Lady Lee and more recently by Lord Rayne.

The House might regard the Royal National theatre as currently thrice blessed in having my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) as one of its directors for the last nine years, and in having Lady Soames as its recently appointed chairman. There is no one in the country whose personal dynamism could better lead the Royal National theatre into the future. Her only conceivable drawback is that, were she to appear before the audience, she would upstage—nay, eclipse—every known leading lady, past, present and future.

The third blessing is in the combination of Richard Eyre as director and David Aukin as executive director. Those who saw Richard Eyre's directions at the National theatre of "Guys and Dolls", "The Beggar's Opera" and more recently the electrifying production of "The Changeling"—indeed, those whose theatrical memories go back as far as the Cambridge run of "Expresso Bongo" in the 1960s—will have recognised that here is a man of unusual genius and vision, with the capacity to evoke something unique and special from all involved in his productions.

With the help of Government, local authorities and private sponsors, and through much hard work, a unique national institution has at last been created with which a massive number of people, at home and abroad, identify. The Royal National theatre is the jewel in the crown of the British and, I believe, the European theatre. It exists, in the words of Richard Eyre, to do work which either by content or by execution, or both, could not be performed or would not be initiated in the commercial sector. It provides continuity of investment, of employment and of a theatrical tradition, and this requires a subsidy to supplement the revenues from the box office.Composing the content of the repertoire will always be a balancing act between adventure and caution, between known classics and the unknown; recent plays and new ones. But the spine of the work will always be the classics which are our genetic link with the past and our means of decoding the present.Every age sees its own reflection in these plays. We find in them not the past throwing a shadow on the present, but an image of ourselves. The classics survive, not because they are relics venerated for their age, but because of what they mean to us now.But we have to keep rediscovering ways of doing the classics. They do not have absolute meanings. There is no fixed frozen way of doing them. Nostalgia is a powerful, but slow acting poison and it can cripple; the life of the theatre should always be in the present tense. I will speak of the present. The institution that now exists consists of three separate and distinct theatres—the Olivier, based on the classical Greek theatre; the Lyttelton theatre, based on the proscenium arch theatres of the last three centuries; and the Cottesloe, based on the Tudor inn yards. They are modelled on theatrical designs from the three greatest periods of western drama.

Crucial to the experience of visiting the theatre is the front-of-house area which, in contrast to the cramped conditions of much of the commercial theatre, encourages people to relax and gives them room to do so. Sir Denys Lasdun's building has not met with universal praise at all times, but neither has St. Paul's cathedral. I believe that the Royal National theatre, on one of the most beautiful sites in London, will be seen by history as a far-sighted and brilliant extension of traditional theatrical ideas.

The front-of-house area is like a fourth auditorium, where people can browse at bookstalls, look at exhibitions, eat and drink, or sit and chat. Important, too, is the National theatre studio, financed by private sources and housed in the Old Vic annexe. There the National theatre refines and extends its skills and generates new writing and experimental work. Regular studio nights are held in the Cottesloe, when examples of work in progress are shown to the public for one night only.

Important, too, is the education department which links up with schools and colleges, and takes specially created productions on tour. Touring at home and abroad of main house productions, never in greater demand than now, is an important aspect of the theatre's work. I know that that importance is recognised by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and by the Arts Council. The theatre also provides facilities for visiting theatre companies, both from Britain and abroad.

I shall speak shortly about money, but I begin with quality. Productivity, cost-effectiveness, profit margins and so on are vital when we talk of accountability for public funds. At the end of the day, the case for the subsidised theatre is made on the stage, and the important questions, as Richard Eyre has said, are what is on the stage, is it any good, and what does it mean to the people who watch it? The recent excellent box office receipts of the Royal National theatre derive directly from the quality of the productions and the atmosphere of the theatre. A priceless national asset has been created which is going through an immensely exciting period, and it deserves every possible support that the Government and the House can give it.