Grannies at the National Theatre

My Gran feels alienated by the NT. She doesn’t want to see plays about sex and drugs and stuff. To give you a sense of her taste, she loved Made in Dagenham but found Matilda too loud; she enjoyed Comedy About A Bank Robbery and finds any kind of tragedy ‘miserable’, which really means ‘not worth seeing’. When her beloved Hampstead Theatre recently put on a play called Sex with Strangers she was very clear would absolutely not be seeing it. She took me to see Wild Honey, though, which she loved (probably because it was Comedy About a Bank Robbery meets Chekhov). When I told her about Roman Tragedies she was absolutely horrified by the idea of a) a six hour long play, b) a play in another language and c) a play with sex in where loads of people die. If she had gone to see Oresteia she would have hated it. But she didn’t mind Little Eyolf.

Normally I really don’t care what old people think. But I think my Gran’s opinion matters, because she’s booking fewer and fewer shows at the NT. And that matters because when she books theatre tickets she pays top dollar. The NT needs people like her who have money and will pay for the most expensive seats and always buy a programme and an over-priced ice cream during the interval. For her, theatre is a social occasion: she always books at least two tickets. Never ever goes by herself. She likes going to dinner before a show and often goes to that restaurant inside the NT with the white table cloths. She has money to spend but she isn’t going to spend it on shows she knows she won’t like. And that’s fair enough: she’d never book to see Cleansed and I’d never book to see Love in Idleness.

And by her own admission, she isn’t crazy on Rufus Norris, who seems to be more interested in catering for people my age. I want diverse casting and a diverse range of plays, but my Gran would never book to see Barber Shop Chronicles in a million years. I want more genderblind and gender-flipped casting but my Gran feels very averse to ‘cross-dressing’ in Shakespeare. (I know. I know. I’ve stopped questioning it.)

I want to think that none of this matters because the students blogging about theatre right now will eventually become the equivalent of her generation. We’ll complain about how we only want to see Robert Icke plays and all the young uns will talk about Robert Icke like he’s Trevor Nunn.

Sadly, that isn’t the case. Those of us who are currently under 25 and blogging/tweeting about theatre, who are really into van Hove and Ostermeier and Icke and Mitchell, who seem like such a vocal part of the theatre twitterverse: 99% of us are never going to be able to afford to buy a flat, let alone a house. That’s the cold hard truth. We’re never gonna have the money to buy a four-storey house in Hampstead or drop hundreds of pounds on one night out at the theatre. I think the people who liked Jane Eyre and didn’t like Cleansed will always be the people with money.

For years there’s been a lot of talk about how young people aren’t voting, blah blah blah. Food, Inc. ends with a reminder that we vote three times a day, when we buy food. Our ballot papers aren’t the only thing with value, aren’t the only thing that shape the country and world we live in. Our time, and, more importantly (and obviously), our money, has a lot of currency. Every time anyone buys a theatre ticket, they’re voting for the kind of theatre they want to see. There are no democratic theatres but which plays we pay money to see and spend time seeing: they matter. Every time me or my Gran buys or doesn’t buy a ticket, we’re voting for the kind of theatre we want our National Theatre to put on.

Theatre has always been a certain way: old people put the most money in and, hopefully, the people in charge will put on stuff for the poor young students as well. But right now, it feels like I’m getting so much more out of the NT than my Gran is. I should think that this is a good thing, but I don’t. I want my Gran to enjoy theatre. I don’t want her to feel alienated by it. And sure, there’s some stuff she’ll like (Jane Eyre, Twelfth Night, Deep Blue Sea) but there’s a shitload of stuff she’d never book to see.

I like that Rufus Norris is actively trying to include stuff that teenagers and twenty-somethings will like in his artistic programme (The Flick, The Suicide, anything by Ivo van Hove and Robert Icke, Angels in America, The Threepenny Opera, Cleansed) but something about it doesn’t feel fair. To me there seem to be an imbalance. The average NT audience is getting younger and there are more first time bookers than ever before. Audience figures might be at a seven-year high but tickets are cheaper than ever before. Where is this money coming from? The NT is facing massive slashes to its Arts Council grant. War Horse and Curious Incident are about to finish their West End runs and the NT is making less money from West End transfers anyway. Rufus Norris has to cultivate new donors. There are no young rich people. He needs old rich people. He needs to put on stuff that both me and my Gran will like. Noises Off? Everyone likes Noises Off. Or a nice gentle production of a classical novel: Jane Eyre? Shit. This is harder than it looks (read Haydon’s review of Jane Eyre to understand exactly why I’m making so many jokes at it’s expense).

Can’t believe I’m actually about to end a blog post by suggesting that the National puts on Noises Off. I obviously don’t believe that they should. This whole thing is self-consciously wanky and very anecdotal. Don’t take it too seriously.


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