Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)



  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed for coming to see us this morning, and a Happy New Year. We are conducting this inquiry in parallel with looking at the redevelopment plans, or lack of them, on the South Bank. We found your proposals of very great interest. As you were saying in your private presentation, you are perhaps the most important artistic institution in this country because of the fact that you are providing not only culture and entertainment but are also deeply part of the heritage as well, and therefore what you do is very important to the entire country. I have got a lot of questions to ask but if there are other Members of the Committee who would like to start, I would be very happy to start with them. Debra?

Ms Shipley

  1. Money, I am afraid. Lots and lots and lots of money is pouring into your area of the West Midlands, and I am a West Midlands MP, but frankly half of my constituency is a European Area of Deprivation and, despite what you said about reaching out, you do not reach out to my constituency I am afraid. The rich end, yes, you do, everybody I know who has ever been to Stratford has been from the rich end. From the poor end, as far as I am aware, not a single person has gone. Nobody goes and nobody would even know frankly there is a theatre there. Most of them would not know there is a theatre there. There are three theatres reaching out to the community. All of this Lottery money that you want to bag for Stratford to replace three existing, popular, well attended, already well resourced theatres, could be used in areas of deprivation, such as part of my constituency which is wind-swept, bleak and in desperate need of Lottery money to put in some real arts things there. There is not even a bus or a train that goes, there is really no way they could get there that easily if they had the will to go. Why should you get all the money?
  (Mr Noble) In an ideal world, to be honest with you, I think there should be resources for the redevelopment of Stratford and, indeed, for your constituency, but I understand politics is about choice. In a way I think it comes down to the central point I was making earlier about Shakespeare. I do believe that Shakespeare is an inspiring force, I believe he is a mobilising and motivating force and it is our responsibility, as guardians of one of the most important Shakespeare companies in the world, to make him and his plays and his words as accessible as possible. There are many ways of doing that. The centre of that, it seems to me, lies in performance, in the quality of performance, and then, panning out from that, access to that, which is not just to do with ticket price, it is to do with experience. As I pointed out in my presentation earlier, I bought an extremely cheap ticket but I was miles and miles and miles away from the stage. That is an architectural issue, that is a social issue if you like. The point that Jonathan made is very important about the context of all of this. We are doing this in very close association with Warwickshire County Council, with Stratford District Council and with Advantage West Midlands. All of those parties have not only bought into it with their minds, they have actually bought into it with their money as well because they see the development of the RSC, and indeed the development of Stratford, as an artistic centre, an educational centre and a touristic hub, if you like, mecca, as very, very important to the quality of life of the West Midlands, to the profile of the West Midlands and, therefore, on and out nationally. I cannot address your immediate concerns of your constituency but I can certainly—

  Ms Shipley: But with respect—


  2. Before we go on, could I make clear to Mr Noble's colleagues that they should feel free to respond to any of the questions where they feel they have got something they would like to say.
  (Mr Pope) Thank you. Chairman, may I give a very specific response on exactly an equivalent point to the one Ms Shipley is making. You talk about people who would not normally think of coming to the theatre, who do not have access to a bus or car to get there, that is exactly the sort of problem the RSC has been tackling in practice. In the last three years, for example, we have run a special scheme by raising money from two national charities, focused on the Coventry area as it happens. We have set up a scheme for bringing in children from schools where the schools have high free meal quotas. We have brought those kids in by bussing them in, paying for the bus coming in, we have reduced the price of the ticket to £3, we have given them programmes, we have given them educational programmes when they have got to the theatre and those kids have had an experience in Stratford that they could not possibly have had anywhere else. You could not have put that equivalent experience on in their locality, you need to bring them to a centre where you can do that properly. We have had 6,356 children from 156 schools, where the kids are generally fairly deprived, coming into Stratford to do exactly what we want them to do, which is to enjoy the full experience unqualified and uncompromised of an RSC production. That is an example in practice of the sort of thing we are doing to tackle the kind of issue that you are rightly concerned about and we are very concerned about.

Ms Shipley

  3. I am not convinced by what you have said. I am Vice-Chair of the All Party Architecture Group and I would not mind sweeping away the whole lot and having lovely, state of the art, modern architecture glowing, because most of Stratford glows, and all the tourists coming in, they would love the appearance, but you would have massive, massive opposition to it. What I do say to you is you are not reaching out to my constituents, you really seriously are not. There are little avenues where you are making reaches out but my lot would go to Birmingham if they were going anywhere at all because there is a route to Birmingham. To go to Stratford, it is a little satellite place over there that all these tourists can go to and rich people, but as an entity for the West Midlands, other than going Warwickshire way, I do not buy it I am afraid. If you came to the bleak area that I am talking about in the West Midlands you would say "Oh, my goodness, why am I taking so many millions away from here, when here actually needs standards of excellence in its midst?"
  (Mr Pope) Both need to happen if money is available. Could I just pick up the point about the reach because, you are quite right, there are parts of the country that we do not reach but we said earlier there are 32 locations in the UK that we have visited in the past 12 months, over 100 we have visited in the last ten years, regular visits, two or three times, where we have taken a mobile theatre to a sports centre or a community centre, we have put up a complete example of first class RSC production happening in that community. We have done education projects during the daytime. There are many of your fellow MPs, I am sure, who have in their own constituencies experienced this, and I know many of them have attended performances in their constituencies of the RSC doing that kind of outreach work. We are certainly not going to sit here and say that we reach every single corner of deprivation and need in this country, we do not, but we do a very serious job of getting out as far as we can and I do not, with respect, think that you can say that we are not reaching out at all, which seems to be the implication of your question.

Derek Wyatt

  4. Good morning. I represent a community an hour from here in North Kent and we are a cultural desert. Even though we have Canterbury half an hour away and London an hour away, we have no theatre, we have one cinema for 75,000 people, so do come; tomorrow is not quick enough. Can I just ask Ms Cusack, we have heard from, as it were, the professionals on one side and you are a professional on the other side. What is your reaction to all this development and what do your contemporaries and younger actors and actresses feel about the RSC currently?
  (Ms Cusack) I have not done a research project with all my fellow actors as to how they feel about it, but I know how I feel and I think I am probably quite representative. In response to what you were talking about, I think there is a social exclusivity about theatre-going in this country and I hate it. I hate the fact that there is a sort of them and us quality to theatre-going in the RST. There are the expensive seats and there are the poor devils at the back, you know, who can barely hear and barely see what is going on. They do feel excluded and it is wrong. What Jonathan was saying earlier about that actor Baliol Holloway talking about how it is like acting from Dover to Calais, you cannot see them and they are speaking in a different language. Now I want to address that because Shakespeare is our language and it is your constituents' language and I want them to get Shakespeare, I really, really do, because I think it affects everything in their lives. I have done projects with prisoners in a category B prison up in Blundeston, I did a Macbeth with them and I have worked in schools and I have seen the trickle down effect of Shakespeare and what he does as far as giving them self-esteem and confidence and gentling them and making them communicate and debate. So I want your constituents to get it but there is something wrong with Stratford, there is something seriously wrong with Stratford, because the perception of it is the perception of where the boring old fogeys go and they are rich to boot and they can afford to go there and they can understand it, we cannot, it is not our thing. I have got two kids, one 23, one 16, they spend oodles of money on their music, they spend oodles of money on their sport and I want to turn them on, I want them to get the joke. I want them to get that. That is what I want. By this huge development that we are embarking on, we can make that place somewhere that young people want to come to and it is not just the performance, it will culminate in the performance maybe but it should be all sorts of other things, workshops. They should be working in schools on a project with their teachers, we will help their teachers, then they should come to Stratford, they should meet the actors, they should be working. It should be inclusive rather than this, as I say, exclusivity. I am sorry, that is a bit long-winded.

  5. In your overall plans then, is one of the secondary schools in Stratford going to be a special theatre school so it can link in to what you have got?
  (Mr Pope) We already have very close links with the Stratford schools, the key schools in Stratford, and we do special projects bringing them in. There are no plans at the moment for one of them to be a special school. There is in fact a school in the region which has been designated as a performance specialist school, I think, over at Leamington. We have a lot of links with the schools and, indeed, we have done a lot of work with teachers, training teachers, and we think our best input to helping the schools has been more for youngsters in terms of culture provision to make sure that the teaching of theatre, not just of Shakespeare but of theatre generally, is very well done and is done in a way which is based on the reality of the performance rather than, for example, studying the text in books and so on. That is where we have made our input. We have got those relationships but there is not, as far as I am aware, a specific plan to turn a school into a performance school.

  6. Perhaps that is how you could help my colleague in developing in her constituency an RSC specialist theatre school.
  (Mr Pope) May I just say, I would like to check and come back to your colleague on the facts of whether we have in fact worked with any of the teachers in your constituency or any of the schools because the probability is that we have, but you may know better. I will check that fact and come back to you about it, if I may.

  7. Yes.
  (Ms Cusack) The RSC Academy, which I think is one of the most exciting innovations that we have come up with as part of this development, will address educational issues. There will be three streams. We will be training young actors in classical theatre and we will be developing the skills of our current company but the third stream, and probably the most important stream, will be reaching the youngsters, the teachers with various projects so we will be reaching out more and more I hope to schools and students.

  8. You are giving up the Barbican, it seems. Is that because the Globe has been more successful or is that because it just does not make any monetary sense any more? Why are you leaving early from the Barbican?
  (Mr Foy) It is part of being able to operate in London in spaces which fit the bill for the shows which we are doing. At the moment we have got two links with the Barbican. One is an operating agreement which is a five year agreement and that comes to its close in May of this year and last year we said that, while we would look forward to performing in the Barbican in the future, we did not want the buildings' responsibility which we have at the moment. Our performance in the Barbican is about half a year. So for the other half of the year the Barbican are doing their own programming of the theatre spaces but we have got into a position where we are running the buildings for the Barbican which is a slightly odd arrangement. They are using the buildings themselves for half the year. What we said was that in the future we would like to come to the Barbican and perform in the main theatre, by agreement, by arrangement, with the Barbican but allow the management of the buildings to pass to them.


  9. Could I intervene at that point with regard to the Barbican. I know there can be many criticisms of the Barbican, nevertheless it is very easily accessible. There is an underground station right next door. People know how to get there. It is very popular. I say in passing that I found it utterly impossible to get tickets for King John for tonight. I am not asking for tickets.
  (Mr Noble) I can help you.

  10. People know how to get there. Certainly the main theatre space fulfils everything that you were telling us about in your presentation. Everybody is very near. The sight lines—I will come to sight lines later—are excellent. Whereas, I found the experience of watching the RSC before you went to the Barbican very difficult. When you were at the Aldwych, for example, there was only one row in the stalls from which you could see without heads being in the way. I would be interested to know how you work that out and also the overheads, the overheads of moving from theatre to theatre in London and how that fits in with your overall budget. While I believe that you ought to be very lavishly funded, clearly you have to look at the money.
  (Mr Noble) Yes. I will comment on the space, first of all. There are a number of issues here. The first relates to the fact that in Stratford we have three theatres and in London we have two theatres which means that every year we have a rather unpleasant task which is that you either inflate a production to a theatre which is probably completely unsuitable for it or you shoe horn it down into the Pit Theatre viz King John which I will make sure you can get to see, Chairman.

  Chairman: I do not know if the Whips will let me off now.

Ms Shipley

  11. And we do not like favouritism either.
  (Mr Noble) I see.
  (Mr Pope) All come and see it.
  (Mr Noble) What underlies this is to do with seeking the best space for the show, to fit the space to the art rather than the art to the space. That is one point. The second point relates to what we would perhaps call explorers, people who are not regular theatre-goers who perhaps are concert-goers or perhaps they go to pop concerts. An example is between March and June/July of this year, we are performing at the Roundhouse in North London. We are taking over that space and we will create a season of three of Shakespeare's late plays. They all have a lot of music in them. We will create an atmosphere in there that we hope will be extremely exciting and extremely conducive, not just for regular theatre-goers but also perhaps to young people who are used to going there for completely different reasons, to go and see the Clash or whoever, that is the traditional Roundhouse audience. It will be done in a semi-promenade way. There will be four or 500 promenade places as well as four or 500 seats and we hope by initiatives like that to start forging a new audience. In terms of the Barbican, we are committed to continuing our performances in the Barbican every year. In fact, we are in the middle of extremely constructive conversations with the Barbican management about our programming for the end of this year and indeed on into 2002-03. The financial ramifications of that I think it is probably best if Chris Foy addresses.
  (Mr Foy) The main point of the Barbican change as it affects us is that we do lose a certain amount of support from the Corporation of London that was attached to the number of performances that we were committed to giving under the operating agreement, but we had had an indication from the Barbican that the present level of subsidy should not be expected to continue anyway and it is difficult to be sure how big that loss will turn out to be.

Derek Wyatt

  12. That is £3 million you are getting from the Corporation?
  (Mr Foy) Yes, but that was not all grant towards the costs of the RSC's operations, some of it was money which was provided by the Corporation to neutralise the effect on us of costs of running the Barbican Theatre. In a sense, if we take the RSC out of the theatre's management in the Barbican then the costs between the Corporation and the Barbican are not affected by that as far as the final settlement of the bill is concerned. The impact on the RSC is the loss of the direct subsidy which we have enjoyed from the Corporation of London towards the origination costs of productions. That is what is at risk in making the change that we are making but, as Adrian has said, we are talking with the Barbican about the basis on which we would perform in the Barbican in the future and the precise details of how that works out in practice are yet to be settled between us, but talks are continuing. As far as other theatre spaces are concerned in London, we obviously had to do our research before we could frame our plans last year, so in the plans which were put to the Board in the middle of the year and approved by the Board, and were then announced within the Company and outside, we had made certain assumptions about the costs of operating in London to complement the Barbican space with other spaces that we might use. I think the evidence that we have is that as we make those plans concrete, for example the Roundhouse plans that Adrian has talked about, we are seeing our estimates of how we will be affected are roughly right and, therefore, it is catered for within the plans that we created last year.

  13. For costs of the new build within the old build, as it were, at Stratford, what is the total budget?
  (Mr Foy) Total budget for the redevelopment project at Stratford is at this stage set at £100 million which takes account of the indication from the Arts Council of the possibility of £50 million of Lottery funding being matched by privately raised funding of an equivalent amount.

  14. So in the Arts Council budget, when does that £50 million kick in?
  (Mr Pope) It has been the subject of discussion between ourselves and the Arts Council since 1997 when we put our first application in to them. They have reserved that money in their forward budgets, it is money out of their Capital One Lottery Programme. We have already drawn down first a very small amount of that towards the feasibility study work that has happened this year. It is about three-quarters of a million pounds that has gone out of that £50 million. The rest will be drawn down as necessary as the project proceeds. We do not envisage drawing down the bulk of that money, or starting to draw that down, until probably 2004 and thereafter.

  15. Is that when your £50 million starts to kick in? Where are you with your own fund raising?
  (Mr Pope) We have been actively fund raising for the matching £50 million for the last six years. There has been a very active programme going on. At the moment we are confident that we can see where £30 million of that second £50 million is going to come from, that is from known, identified sources. We are confident that we have good enough relationships with a series of other private individuals and, indeed, other sources of funding, some in the UK, some abroad, for the balance of that. But, of course, fund raising for a project like this is a very difficult and delicate thing to achieve because you have to be able to give the potential donor the certainty that the project is proceeding and the detail of what the project is going to be about and because the project is complex, and it is long in its gestation and preparation, we are not yet at a point, for example, where we can show people detailed designs of what the theatres might be. You will understand from the information we have presented already why we need to go a small step at a time towards the planning and the designing of these buildings. We are confident at the moment that at least £30 million of our second £50 million can come from identified sources and we are confident we can raise the balance but we need to get further into the process before we can make the ask to those donors for the balance of that money.

Mr Bryant

  16. I want to return—I know it is a bit tedious for you—to the issue of other constituencies, as it were. I represent a former coalfield constituency and coalfield constituencies on average get about 48 per cent of the Lottery monies that other constituencies get. I want you to give me a sentence or two that I can use to my constituents about why it is fine for you to get £50 million.
  (Mr Noble) Shakespeare is our national playwright and we should all be proud of Shakespeare. We should all have access to Shakespeare, both in terms of visiting him in performance and access to quality teaching of Shakespeare in our schools. To properly fund and resource Shakespeare's birth place and grave place and in principle the creation of performances of Shakespeare, ie Stratford and the RSC, is a proper thing for a Government to support.

  17. This may be an odd question but do you do work in Wales? I presume that your money comes from the Arts Council of England but you do Wales as well, do you?
  (Mr Foy) Very occasionally part of the touring makes a visit to Wales. There has been one in the last two years, just as there was one to Barrhead last year in Scotland. Primarily all of our touring, which we call British touring, is in fact English touring, but there are these occasional exceptions. There are some changes on the Arts Council in terms of cross-border funding.
  (Mr Pope) You may be aware there were many years until very recently when the Arts Council was constrained under the conditions of its grant from the Treasury as to how that money was spent. There was a very elaborate and very obstructive cross-border funding situation, that they have now begun to deal with. We have always been a Company that has wanted to go into Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and we have done it whenever we have been able to do it. We have mostly had to do it through raising sponsorship as well locally to help support the costs of doing that. We have done it whenever we can.

  18. I am very keen to see Shakespeare sold as a British author, hero, person, rather than just an English person. If there are any means whereby you could make a visit to the Welsh Valleys, you would be very welcome. Briefly about the building in Stratford. Pull it down, I think it is a monstrous carbuncle. I know people have got accustomed to it over the last 70 years but I think it is a hideous building. I have loved the performances I have been to in it but I have hated being in the building itself because it really is a nightmare. I have only ever been in the Gods there and I have only ever seen a third of the plays. The real issue, it seems to me, is about the ensemble, because if the RSC was created as a company rather than the building itself by Peter Hall with the whole idea of creating this ensemble of actors who would do something different from what Shakespeare in the commercial West End was about, that is the bit that I am not sure I can see a future for you in your plans.
  (Mr Noble) As Brecht said, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so if you would just like to look at our plans for the next eight or nine months I think it will be proved. One company of actors will come together in London and will create a body of three of Shakespeare's late plays, cross-cast between the three and they will do them in a promenade fashion and go to Stratford with them. At the same time into rehearsal goes Ms Cusack playing Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, cross that production cross-cast with Much Ado about Nothing, an ensemble of 28 actors creating a body of work, play in Stratford and then come to London. Meanwhile, in the Swan Theatre we have identified five Jacobethan titles that have never been performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company or the National Theatre, great plays, wonderful plays, part of our heritage that are going to be presented with minimal resources in the Swan Theatre between April and October of this year, then all this goes up to Newcastle, by the way, with another group of actors. Then a fourth group of actors will come together, mostly Asian actors, and will do Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and The Merry Wives of Windsor. That is living repertoire ensemble without saying to an actor "you have got to sign up for 28 months, Ms Cusack". I think the process of change, and change of management, is one of the most important factors facing this country. I think it is vital that an important arts organisation like the RSC takes these things on board. Of course it would be easier for us to say as in the past "let's hire actors for 18 months, 24 months, 36 months", but you have got to make a reality check here. We should be the most attractive place, or as attractive as possible, to actors at every point in their career, a youngster leaving drama school or a Sir this or a Dame that, to come and work with us. We have also got to be realistic about the pressures on young performers or, indeed, on a man of my age with a young family perhaps to earn money that we cannot possibly, and never will be able to provide in the theatre, are immense. We have to respond in a flexible way, permeable way, to a changing world. I think what we are doing is to recognise the great things of our past, which you quite rightly identify as being sourced out of the repertoire ensemble, and take them forward. It is interesting, I was reading Ken Tynan's Diaries on holiday over Christmas, Peter Hall—who found the RSC—in 1974 said to Kenneth Tynan the days of companies are over, they are over in this country. That was 27 years ago.

  19. Do you want to say something?
  (Ms Cusack) I do because my only theatrical aspiration, I was from Dublin, I wanted to play classical theatre. There was not very much classical theatre done at the Abbey Theatre, it was not part of our remit. So I saw across the water, and I saw Stratford, it was my beacon of excellence, it was where I wanted to train. I knew it was a teaching theatre, I had never been to drama school, I knew I could learn more there than anywhere else in Ireland or England. I wanted it very badly and I wanted it because of all those things like the ensemble. I could not be on a Board that would preside over the dismantling of the ensemble system, I value it massively. It has given my any craft, any skill that I have. So we are not in the process of dismantling that and if we were I would be off, I would be gone. We are just changing because the climate that actors live in today is a very, very different climate from the climate where I started 30 years ago. Agents say to us, business managers say to us "Do not go to Stratford. Do not incarcerate yourself for two years in Stratford, you are mad. You have got to do television. You have got to do film. They do not pay you anything and you are lost. You will never be able to get on the treadmill again if you go to Stratford". That is the sort of advice that young actors and actors like myself are given regularly but I do not care because I think Stratford is, like Adrian was saying earlier, Shakespeare is so important, Shakespeare means a great deal. Shakespeare can achieve a great deal, I really believe that.

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