Andy Field’s blog in the Guardian about the National Theatre is provoking lively debate, much of it because the subbed headline Why We Should Really Demolish the National Theatre is, according to Andy, not what he means at all. The main thrust of his argument is that a national theatre should not be chained to a concrete mass. His desire for the National to work across England, free of buildings, is the latest expression of the current theatrical vogue for producing theatre outside of conventional spaces and for encouraging the audience to become more active players.
In fact, the National has pioneered national engagement with its work with NT Live which reaches a new and broader audience throughout Britain and overseas. This will deliver wider and more far reaching benefits than packing up the NT shows and touring them throughout the land.
Andy is also a fan of the new models for national theatres, in particular The National Theatre of Scotland which is not boxed in by bricks and mortar, and the National Theatre of Wales which launches this year. But, to make an obvious point, England is not Scotland. There is the issue of scale. Scotland does not have the mega regional producing venues of Leeds, Manchester and the like. At 5m, the population of Scotland is just less than that of the North West of England.
NToS was initiated by the Scottish Government at the behest of the theatre community, to work with it in partnership and not to compete with it. And we didn’t need another building, as we have lots already. This model is not without its problems as the very success of NToS means that it can hoover up talent, attention and resources but the success of NToS is highly dependent on a healthy Scottish theatre sector.
Scotland is a small country where the national theatre is a crucial expression of cultural identity and is then more similar to other small nations where the national theatre, of whatever model, has a particularly significant role as a national cultural institution. In Ireland, the current proposals to re-house the Abbey in the GPO building rather than in a new one reflects its primary importance as a cultural institution.
The Royal National Theatre has a greater role than as a national theatre of England and it has responsibilities as a national cultural institution. It has a perfectly serviceable building and does a great job . Yes theatre should take place everywhere, but sending the National out all over England when there are so many other major players cant really make sense.