The latest award for crassness in the artistic arena goes to that perennial favourite, the UK Government.
Our venerable leaders’ choice quote came when challenged to comment on the news that its country’s National Theatre was now no longer able to tour productions into Europe, starting with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which had just been forced to postpone a proposed venture.
As quoted in The Guardian, a government spokesperson said, “touring in Europe is currently not possible due to COVID-19 and EU member states have not set out plans for when it will be. We are working urgently with the UK’s creative industries to help ensure they can work confidently in Europe once touring can safely resume.”
Last week, the government said that, although the EU rejected its proposals for creative professionals to work flexibly, it hoped that member states “will act on these calls by changing the rules they apply to UK creatives”.
It may have passed HMG by, but the reasons why our National Theatre, not to mention so many other companies and thousands of musicians, are facing insuperable problems in booking European tours are twofold and they are directly responsible for both.
Had the United Kingdom, egged on by those who are now the government’s leading lights, not chosen to leave the European Union, the status quo would have continued and nobody would even have noticed. Subject to the ravages of coronavirus, musicians would have enjoyed their stadium tours or university / pub gigs across the continent, while theatre companies could have continued bringing their genius to a wider audience.
Mr Johnson and Co our even more culpable when it comes to the second issue. In June 2016, a vote took place after which it was determined that the UK would leave Europe. It is therefore rather rich for government spokespeople to try blaming the EU when 4½ years later our blustering Prime Minister and his negotiating team failed to include any provisions to protect performing artists in his “world-beating deal”.
The consequences of this embarrassing failure will be serious. For many musicians, it could literally be the difference between an opportunity to ply their trade in future and a decision to cut their losses and stack shelves in Sainsbury’s or deliver Amazon packages. Recent statistics suggest that not far short of half of all of those in the industry are seriously considering taking the exit route. While theatre practitioners generally have fewer aspirations to work in Europe, many companies will undoubtedly be hit by what has effectively become a ban on touring their work.
It isn’t hard to understand the National Theatre’s dilemma and reluctant decision, since productions like Curious Incident are going to need a large number of travelling staff in both creative and admin roles. Each individual would need separate visas for every country that they visited, which will undoubtedly prove both costly and time-consuming. It might even be impossible to achieve in certain cases.
Rufus Norris and Lisa Burger, who jointly head up NT, have enough headaches without this to worry about. Their venues have largely been closed for almost a year and, rather than receiving necessary grant funding, they have been forced to take a loan of almost £20 million from the government’s Cultural Recovery Fund. As a direct consequence, they have been forced to cut large numbers of staff. Ignoring the European issue from moment, this will then hang around the theatre’s collective neck for the next decade, insidiously stilting development and artistic endeavour.
Elements of the Prime Minister’s loudly heralded roadmap theoretically offers a route to escape commercial ruin but, in some ways, seem more like a fantasy written by J K Rowling rather than the grim realism of Sir David Hare. There must be a reasonable prospect of enjoying outdoor productions this summer, albeit with social distancing, masks etc. However, on the basis that only about half of the population will have received an injection against coronavirus by 21 June and most of those will not have had the security of a second injection, why Mr Johnson thinks that theatres can be opened up at full capacity is a mystery. The cynical might observe that with this government, long-term thinking has consistently been a challenge.
If this policy does come to pass, you have to feel that we will be in for another long, unpleasant winter with all theatres dark, practitioners starving and the viewing public trapped at home for just as long as they have been in the current lockdown.
The prospect of running full-scale productions on the scale of Simon Stephens’s glorious stage reworking of Mark Haddon’s novel to full houses in the West End, on tour or overseas is still little more than a pipe dream. The situation is only compounded by a complete failure to address the predictable problems that the departure from Europe have directly caused.