This critic’s last visit to the National Theatre portentously took place on Friday 13 March for a seven-hour marathon stint enjoying Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota.
Three days later, like all of its peers, the theatre was obliged to close its doors and since has only briefly reopened in limited form, although it lit up the early days of lockdown with online broadcasts of some unforgettable productions. The chronology might seem pedantic were it not for stop press news received yesterday, almost exactly nine months after the closure.
To a fanfare of carefully choreographed praise, the theatre announced that it was the recipient of a loan of £19.7 million from the government’s Cultural Recovery Fund, as part of a £165 million pot that also benefits the Royal Opera House, the Royal Albert Hall, the Southbank Centre, English National Opera and The Bridge. It may be coincidence but every one of these venues is based in Central London.
At the same time, the remainder of the £1.57 billion announced six months ago has been allocated to assorted capital projects and a jazzily entitled “Capital Kickstart Fund”. Oddly, although this information has percolated through from the individual companies, the government’s Culture Recovery Fund web site does not currently mention these loans, although details were on the news page of its web site.
The National Theatre’s grandees and Joint Chief Executives Rufus Norris and Lisa Burger were polite enough to refrain from commenting on the interminable wait for what is described as an “emergency loan”. In most people’s eyes, emergencies need to be dealt with utilising a greater degree of urgency than the span from the heady days of spring to the countdown to Christmas.
The good news for the National is that in its never-ending tussle with the RSC (one of a handful of beneficiaries outside the capital), it has come out on top, though only by a whisker. At almost exactly the same time, the Stratford-based theatre was proud to announce that its coffers had been boosted by a £19.4 million loan from the same source.
Bearing in mind that this is presumably supposed to cover the whole of the current financial year, there must be a bittersweet taste in the mouths of Artistic Director Gregory Doran and Executive Director Catherine Mallyon. Their press release rather pointedly observes that since the company has been unable to stage full productions following that fateful day in March, it is anticipating a loss of 86% of its income outside the Arts Council England grant, representing a loss of £46 million for the current financial year.
In other words, this loan—and it is a loan and not a grant—represents under 50% of the financial hit. One should, however, note that to an extent the financial burden has been softened by other government support, in particular the furlough scheme.
The other issue that both the National and the RSC will face in the very near future seems almost too obvious to be worth stating. Although vaccines are beginning to appear on the horizon, nobody—not even Matt Hancock—can really believe that theatres will be fully functioning by April Fools’ Day. This means that the losses will continue to rack up in the early months of the 2021–22 financial year with a genuine fear that venues will not be on an even keel even by its end.
There can be little doubt that the UK’s two premier theatre companies will be greatly relieved by the news that this financing has finally come through, after what must have been many months of heartache and job losses. However, loans are loans, despite what might be relatively lax terms. “Bespoke loans have been tailored for cultural institutions with an initial repayment holiday of up to four years, low interest rate and up to 20-year repayment term to ensure they are affordable for arts and heritage organisations”. Those “up tos” are worrying.
This means that while the theatres are propped up in the short-term, their debt burden has increased substantially for the foreseeable future. While both of the country’s leading theatre venues are artistically and commercially successful, their business models will be creaking.
As a result, there has to be a strong possibility that any bank manager raking through cash flow forecasts for the next five or 10 years might ask some pertinent and embarrassing questions to which there can be no answer, unless they somehow manage to increase income and/or cut costs substantially or can persuade Arts Council England / the government to offer greater support going forwards.