Arts Essay

Isn’t it time we asked the National Theatre to support itself?

Lloyd Evans says yes – but a Great Luvvie Backlash is inevitable when any public body is exposed to reform

12 July 2014

9:00 AM

12 July 2014

9:00 AM

Two glorious playhouses grace the south bank of the Thames. Shakespeare’s Globe and the National Theatre stage the finest shows available anywhere in the world. Both are kept in business by the play-going public who last year helped the Globe to turn over £21 million, with a surplus of £3.7 million. Audiences also flocked in record numbers to the NT and it notched up nearly 1.5 million paid attendances, with its three houses playing to over 90 per cent capacity. But there’s a massive difference between the two. The Globe is funded by customers who spend cash freely in an open market. The NT gets a bung of £17.6 million from the Arts Council, which is extracted from you and me, through the Inland Revenue, on pain of prosecution.

The latest spending round may have trimmed 3.6 per cent from the NT’s annual award but the pitch to its key supporters, the tax-paying public, remains the same. ‘Bail out the luvvies or we’ll put you behind bars.’ So we’re  entitled to ask if there might be a simpler, friendlier way to keep the NT  in business. Could it be encouraged to consider the merits of Globe-alisation? A glance through its funding model offers a few clues.

Leaving aside the £17 million tax heist (which forms 20 per cent of its income), the NT has an impressive catalogue of sponsors. Many are anonymous individuals. Travelex, a currency dealership, gives it £2.7 million a year in return for publicity. The NT also has a patron, Her Majesty, although there’s no hint of this connection on the NT website or on any of its branding. The Financial Statement, to be fair, comes clean about the embarrassment with the words ‘Royal National Theatre’ lodged at the base of the page.

This suggests an obvious way forward. Big up the Windsors a bit more and use them as bait to snare a richer sponsor than Travelex. The royals will want something in return, of course, and Prince Charles’s agricultural business might be named as the preferred supplier for all the NT’s catering needs. True, he won’t shift much organic shortbread in the foyer but there’s a restaurant upstairs, named Ovations, which would be an ideal showcase for foodstuffs grown on Duchy lands, according to Duchy precepts. Duchy beef, Duchy chips, Duchy cheese, Duchy crackers. And isn’t it time we had a top-quality Duchy champagne to rival the great marques of France? This could be the incentive that Charles needs to ‘take the Duchy to the next level’.


Replacing state aid with private investment will stir up a host of objections. What if the sponsor demands the right to rename one of the NT theatres? Well, that horse has already bolted. The Cottesloe is about to re-open as the Dorfman Theatre in honour of Travelex’s chief executive. What if the corporate backer tried to defile the South Bank with advertisements twinkling garishly over the dark and mysterious waters of the winding Thames? That’s happened too. The NT circumvents the ban on bankside adverts with a massive blinking noticeboard on its roof that flashes news of forthcoming attractions to drunken barge-pilots and vagrants dozing on Waterloo Bridge.

What if the corporation requires a slice of the profits? I’d suggest that an investor who stakes millions on an unpredictable venture deserves a return on their commitment. That’s how it works in the commercial sector. Forty per cent goes to the backer, once a show breaks even, and the lead producer takes the rest. Seems fair enough.

But would this innovation meet with the approval of the acting trade? Well, of course it wouldn’t. They’d reject it out of hand and with terrific fanfare. A Great Luvvie Backlash is inevitable when any public body is exposed to reform, be it a world-class teaching hospital or a rusting mobile library. But let’s ask ourselves why the thesps are so keen to man the barricades. Is it because principles are involved? Or because cameras are? In any case, it’s bewildering that anyone should trust what an actor has to say about a political issue. They’re ‘actors’, after all, which is a bit of a clue.

A trickier question concerns the NT’s fabled ability to innovate and experiment, to invest in oddball shows and to find hit productions in barren-seeming fields. The assumption here is that the NT is alone in its desire to stray off-piste and to seek treasure in uncharted terrain. In fact, every theatre producer who ever lived has felt an overpowering need to seek out dazzlingly original shows in the unlikeliest places. But only the NT has the freedom to do so, thanks to the sugar-daddy taxpayer who underwrites all its flops. And the NT’s status as a trustafarian with endless pots of cash is beginning to damage the West End. Secretly, and in hushed tones, theatre owners point out that the NT is able to mount 26 shows a year and to cherry-pick the best one or two and ‘take them into town’. Every private impresario keeps a slate of shows in development as well, but they don’t have the luxury of blowing half a million here or there on an experiment that may come falling back to earth with a sickening crunch of bruised egos and broken bank accounts.

At first sight, the National’s impact on the commercial sector seems pretty moderate. In 2013 it had three shows running in town, War Horse, One Man, Two Guvnors and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Add Matilda, from the tax-guzzling RSC, and you get a total of four subsidised shows in a sector with 50 theatres. That’s one twelfth of the whole. A large enough chunk to have a visible effect. The more the NT is able to experiment, the less the private investors are free to do so. The result is that independent impresarios, who risk losing their homes if they curate a string of failures, feel the need to hedge their bets by mounting fail-safe crowd-pleasers. And we know what that means. It means jukebox musicals. It means Noël Coward. It means yet another movie classic ‘reimagined for the stage’ with a script by the Father Ted guy and an all-star cast featuring a Downton rotter, a Hogwarts man-child, a Coronation Street escapee and Judi Dench. If we want less of that we need a fairer and freer market.

So, names and faces. What sponsor? Anyone, I would say. Let’s not be sniffy. A firm with deep pockets and a desire to form a long-term alliance with one of the world’s most prestigious cultural brands. The right candidate would have to complement and not directly compete with an existing sponsor like Travelex. An airline would pass the test. Or a large bank, or a pharma giant, or a well-established tech firm. Perhaps a major retailer, or a car manufacturer, or a multinational that makes running shoes. But here’s the oddity. The longer the list becomes the more the doubts start to creep in. Do we really want to give a toy firm or a fizzy-pop company equal billing with our theatrical history and our dramatic tradition? I’d feel a pang of shame buying a ticket for the ‘Intel Pentium National Theatre’ and taking a seat in the ‘Facebook Space’ or the ‘Lucozade Rooms’.

At this point, a new thought occurs. Perhaps we don’t need a sponsor at all. The Globe manages without any corporate backing. It makes do with a vague appeal to the public to be generous and stump up a bit of cash. By solidifying that invitation, and by giving it a formal structure, we could create a system of collective investment. This highly flexible and efficient model is gaining ground elsewhere. There are, for example, websites you’ve never heard of that can raise tens of thousands of pounds within a week or so to publish books whose authors are barely known within their own households. Small theatre companies are adopting the same method. And the NT has the supreme advantage of an international profile and a ready-made client list of art-lovers who’d be delighted to wager a few quid on a show that might, just might, run for ten years on either side of the Atlantic. The virtue of collective investment is that it creates an intimate, direct link between the punter and the product. With a body calling itself ‘the National Theatre’ that asset becomes priceless. The NT could begin to operate as a truly public organisation willing to share its treasures, artistic and financial, with the community it serves.

The alternative is to let the NT stay as it is, a gilded beggar, a tramp in a gorgeous suit of ruined silk, who obtains money with menaces from passers-by and then angrily denounces their meanness. The NT is the jewel in the crown of our artistic heritage. It doesn’t belong on Benefits Street.

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Show comments
  • Bridget McKenzie

    There’s one ‘what if?’ you’ve forgotten. What if the sponsor was an oil company? Taxpayer subsidy of our national cultural institutions is the best way to ensure that nurturing new talent and taking artistic risks can be sustained relatively ethically. The NT’s role is much more to act as a hub for creative learning and innovation than more independent theatres like the Globe, even those theatres do wonderful work in these respects. I don’t disagree that the Royal family couldn’t be more involved in supporting national culture.

    • Bob339

      You could not be more wrong. State support is charity. Charity is the most poisonous, counterproductive thing imaginable. It has ruined whole countries.

  • rollingmoss

    This is an astonishingly poor argument. The article is too full of false
    assumptions and non-sequiters to take apart in its entirety, but lets
    look at three key claims:

    “Secretly, and in hushed tones, theatre owners point out that the NT is
    able to mount 26 shows a year and to cherry-pick the best one or two and
    ‘take them into town’.” This is not discussed secretly at all – it is a
    plain fact for all to see. Those same theatre owners are the ones who
    then host those hit shows from subsidised theatres like the National and
    make a fortune out of them. Why do you think Cameron Mackintosh was so
    quick to snap up Curious Incident when the Apollo’s roof collapsed? It
    is a cash cow. (Indeed, Mackintosh is someone who knows a thing or two
    about profiting from the risky ventures of subsidised theatre – Les
    Miserables, after all, started at the RSC. Without the support of a
    company like that he would not have become the billionaire that he is
    now). Any major commercial producer or theatre owner will say quite
    openly that they absolutely rely on the subsidised sector to source a
    significant amount of their work. The two wings – not-for profit and
    commercial – work in concert not competition.

    ” The more the NT is able to experiment, the less the private investors are free to do so.” Evans provides no evidence to support this claim because it is
    entirely fallacious. Juke box musicals and Coward revivals occur
    precisely because a canny commercial producer – whose primary aim is to
    make money not create great art as an end in itself – knows that those
    things are more likely to sell to a mass audience and are therefore less
    of a commercial risk. Because they have no subsidy a commercial producer
    cannot take the artistic risks that a subsidised house can. But it
    is a lack of subsidy generally that militates against risk, not the
    presence of subsidy in one sector of the industry and its absence in
    another. Take the subsidy away from the NT et al and you will get fewer
    creative risks taken across the board – not a sudden flowering of risk
    taking by individuals who have not done so up to now. You won’t find a
    single commercial producer – not Sonia Friedman, not Nica Burns, Not
    Bill Kenwright and not Cameron Mackintosh – who would argue that an
    unsubsidised NT would make it easier for them to take risks. If Lloyd
    Evans had asked any of them before writing this article he would have
    discovered how poor his argument is.

    “The Globe manages without any corporate backing.” This is just wrong: http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/support-us/corporate-support/current-supporters

    “It [The Globe] makes do with a vague appeal to the public to be generous
    and stump up a bit of cash. By solidifying that invitation, and by giving it a
    formal structure, we could create a system of collective investment.”
    The Globe does not make a “vague appeal” at all – rather it has a
    sophisticated, structured and well run fundraising department. just like
    the NT. Any non-profit theatre in this country, subsidised or not,
    already engages in exactly the kind of fundraising that Evans refers to
    here. the National is brilliant at it – soliciting support at every
    level from micro-donations via its website to massive gifts from wealthy
    private individuals. the system Evans wants already exists and
    flourishes. But it does so alongside the public subsidy, not as a
    replacement for it.

    But the ultimate argument against Evans here, exists already in his first paragraph. he says: “the NT… notched up nearly 1.5 million paid attendances, with its three houses playing to over 90 per cent capacity.” One might say, that this, if nothing else, is evidence that the mixed economy that the NT (like any subsidised
    theatre) relies on – of public investment, private sponsorship and box
    office receipts – works. The NT’s work is of a generally high quality,
    ticket prices remain at affordable levels and the NT engages in masses
    of things that present no direct commercial benefit but are vital
    nonetheless – education, outreach, R&D etc. All of this would change
    if the NT lost its subsidy and was no longer required to provide them.
    That would be bad for the NT, bad for the theatre ecology as a whole –
    both commercial and not for profit – and bad for our wider culture, as
    the arts became ever more a plaything of the rich. In short, subsidy
    works and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  • Lydia Robinson

    The Orange Tree Theatre has had its funding completely withdrawn and in many ways does the job the NT should be doing – reviving Edwardian plays which are part of our heritage and still have a strong message to impart. Unfortunately, these plays probably aren’t left wing or trendy enough to be staged by the NT. It’s long been a vehicle of socialist propaganda and like all socialism is funded by the State.

    • rollingmoss

      “The Orange Tree Theatre has had its funding completely withdrawn and in
      many ways does the job the NT should be doing – reviving Edwardian plays
      which are part of our heritage and still have a strong message to
      impart.”
      – What like the NT’s recent productions of George Bernard Shaw’s Major
      Barbara and St Joan? Or it’s production of Rattigan’s After the Dance or
      JB Priestley’s Time and the Conways? Oh yes, actually the NT does loads
      of what you say it should do as well as doing lots more besides.

      “It’s
      long been a vehicle of socialist propaganda and like all socialism is
      funded by the State.” But you just complained about the Orange Tree
      having its funding cut so are you for or against state subsidy? Or are
      you as confused and pathetically ill-informed as the original article?

      • Lydia Robinson

        I don’t see why the NT should have the lion’s share of a subsidy. By the way, the “pathetically ill-informed” author of the article is a theatre critic. What credentials do you have?

        • rollingmoss

          The NT does not get the lion’s share of subsidy. It gets a lot sure, but that is only a relatively small amount of the total of approx £350m that ACE gives out each year to NPO organisations around the country. (not to mention all the other funds it distributes in terms of its Grants for The Arts programme and its Strategic funds). The NT also gets considerably less than the £26m that ROH receives, but I don’t see Lloyd Evans complaining about that.

          And yes – I am aware that Evans is a theatre critic, though he is a fairly marginal one. But that is irrelevant because someone’s ability to respond aesthetically to what they see on stage does not, in any way, necessarily qualify them to comment on the business side of how the theatre industry as a whole works. As I point out in my comment below, his arguments are lacking in both evidence and logic. It is that that makes them pathetically ill-informed, not anything else.

          As for who I am? Well, that should be irrelevant because the arguments I have made should stand or fall on their own merits, but if you must know I work in the theatre industry and am very well versed in how both the subsidised and commercial sectors work.

  • rollingmoss

    “The Orange Tree Theatre has had its funding completely withdrawn and in
    many ways does the job the NT should be doing – reviving Edwardian plays
    which are part of our heritage and still have a strong message to
    impart.” – What like the NT’s recent productions of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara and St Joan? Or it’s production of Rattigan’s After the Dance or JB Priestley’s Time and the Conways? Oh yes, actually the NT does loads of what you say it should do as well as doing lots more besides.

    “It’s long been a vehicle of socialist propaganda and like all socialism is funded by the State.” But you just complained about the Orange Tree having its funding cut so are you for or against state subsidy? Or are you as confused and pathetically ill-informed as the original article?

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