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Features Published 24 April 2017

Are we Building the Wrong Kind of New Theatres?

Following the launch of The Bridge, a venture capital-funded space helmed by Nicholas Hytner, Alice Saville asks why London's new theatres are looking to the past, not the future.
Alice Saville
The Bridge Theatre

The Bridge Theatre

The Bridge isn’t the first new theatre in London this year, or even the first new theatre in London Bridge this year (that honour will have to go to The Bunker) but it’s easily the biggest. It’s run by former National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner, and has a line-up of West End-friendly new drama, peppered with celebrity castings like Ben Whishaw.

It’s also (gently, cautiously) forward-looking. There’s an even gender balance of playwrights across its first two seasons. It’s got Hytner’s first serious piece of cross-casting, with Michelle Fairley playing Cassius in Julius Caesar. Julius Caesar is also looking to the 21st century (albeit its earlier years) by being staged as a promenade. The Bridge itself has got a fully flexible space, to make it open to still more inventive stagings.

You could easily see The Bridge as a thoroughly welcome addition to the theatre world, and one which points to the health of the West End. And admittedly, I don’t remember the last time you could see so many ‘proper plays’ in commercial venues (my theatre memory stretches back 10 years, max, so do take that with an appropriate shaker-full of salt). The jukebox musical’s reign of terror is over, and there are high-quality productions of classics like The Glass Menagerie, two Edward Albee plays (yay!) a surprising resurgence of farces (less yay!) and revivals of NT big hits to be had. They’re proving that there’s an appetite for high-quality new drama, on a kind of scale that shorter runs in subsidised venues can’t satisfy.

The Bridge is a huge gesture of faith in London’s appetite for ‘proper plays’. So why am I griping about it? It’s partly that there have been so many new theatres recently – including Park Theatre, The Other Palace, Underbelly’s Embankment Garden space. I’m not convinced we need more. But it’s also because I’m uneasy with how The Bridge is selling itself, and what its approach says about this influx of splashily-funded new ventures on London’s theatre scene. 

On The Bridge’s website, there’s a faintly Orwellian statement about the venue’s future programming. “We’re going to make shows that are both challenging and popular. We know there’s a large audience which responds to new work that is ambitious and stimulating; and the more adventurous it is, the more popular it turns out to be.”

It’s the kind of statement you can imagine turning up on a glossy brochure aimed at investors, like the venture capitalists who funded The Bridge’s development. But it’s just not true – not really. The history of theatre is littered with bold, glittery, adventurous failures: most recently, Jamie Lloyd’s Doctor Faustus, or Rufus Norris’s Wonder.Land. And there’s a huge, long tail of brilliant artists making ambitious, stimulating work that attracts small audiences, in part because of the small venues they play at, and in part because finding new audiences for hard-to-categorise work is just that – hard.

Making truly adventurous work is a huge gamble. And the fact that private investors will happily entrust their money to The London Theatre Company, owners of The Bridge, shows that what it’s doing isn’t really adventurous. Where young theatremakers increasingly work as collectives, or devise their own work, or collaborate with artists from other disciplines, every play on that two-year line-up fits the time-honoured structure of playwright, director, designer, big-name actor. It feels like a slightly less challenging version of a season at the National Theatre. And instead of taking its own risks, it’s capitalising on risks taken by other, subsidised venues, which have pushed forward developments like cross-casting and inventive stagings – and nurtured the playwrights that it’s now commissioning.

Any kind of success that The Bridge has will be built on the shoulders of the subsidised sector. But The Bridge isn’t even paying lip service to the ideals of the theatre scene that made it possible. There’s no talk of engaging with the local community or building local audiences. Or feeding profits back into working with young artists. Or hosting the best experimental work, and helping it reach wider audiences.

Rather than being new and adventurous, it’s almost like The Bridge is a way of taking refuge from the more burdensome, spikier, harder-to-love sides of the theatre world, and calcifying the idea of what ‘theatre’ is around its biggest commercial hits.

This insularity, this new definition of what ‘adventurous’ is, feels especially weird at a time when actually experimental work is getting huge audiences. Lucy McCormick’s challenging, boundary-breaking solo show Triple Threat just got written up by Deborah Orr, in the Guardian. At the moment, cross-over works like Triple Threat have to rely on (at best), the Edinburgh Fringe, a run at Soho Theatre, or (very rarely) a stint at The Barbican to reach wide audiences – don’t we need a space where they can hit the mainstream?

But I think the biggest thing that not just The Bridge, but any number of new theatres that have opened recently demonstrate is a kind of letting-go of the idea of the theatre as something that rises up from the community that surrounds it.

My ideals of what theatre can be were formed, partly, when I was an usher at the Young Vic. A core part of its approach at that time was about building on the support of the ‘Two Boroughs’ – Lewisham and Southwark – that fed into it. A third of tickets were given out for free or at hugely discounted rates, and under-served audiences were explicitly welcomed through the doors. At the time it felt revolutionary, but also natural – the theatre of the future. But new theatres seem to be distancing themselves from that kind of community focus, and it feels like a real problem.

Last week, I went to Fire in the Machine at The Albany, Deptford. It was performed by teenagers from the borough of Lewisham, and was like a window into their lives – or more accurately, like sitting behind a group of them on the bus, as they sung along to songs on their mobiles or tapped out their innermost thoughts. Everyone in that audience saw something new about what it’s actually like being young in Lewisham – even if they were the mum or best mate of one of the performers on stage.

The growth of live cinema screenings has made proper theatre come closer than ever to the venture capitalist’s holy grail, the ‘scaleable investment’. Big hits can be rolled out all over the country, like films, separated from the context of the venues that created them. And the more we think about theatre as infinitely scaleable and roll-out-able, a world-class investment for world-class audiences, the more we lose the sense of a theatre that’s about who’s in the room.

If you want to see the real future of theatre, it’s the work that young artists are making in dilapidated, makeshift venues – often shouldering much of the costs themselves. The Bridge feels like it’s Nicholas Hytner’s continuing legacy, a way of keeping a stake in the future of theatre. It would be so much more powerful to hand that stake over to the people who are defining theatre’s future, now.

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Alice Saville

Alice is a writer, arts journalist and handicrafts enthusiast. As well as writing and commissioning for Exeunt, she's a regular contributor to Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine, and makes costumes for performance.

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