Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Nick Serota's Catastrophic Start, Living by Numbers and My Internship at the Guardian

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Nick Serota's Catastrophic Start, Living by Numbers and My Internship at the Guardian

Article excerpt

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. …

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