Most readers will gradually have become aware that stealth taxes are steadily eating into their hard-earned incomes.
There is an obvious reason. Rather than incurring the ire of backbenchers and the tabloid press, successive Chancellors of the Exchequer have avoided increasing the headline rates of taxes. Instead, they take more subtle steps such as freezing personal allowances. In terms of rampant inflation, they see this as picking our pockets painlessly.
Coincidentally, the revered canon of William Shakespeare is suffering a similar fate. This seems to be a result of a combination of changing fashions, a belief that the public doesn’t have the attention span to enjoy long plays and, last but most certainly not least, an economic downturn that is a recession in everything but name.
The popularity of William Shakespeare’s works has ebbed and flowed over the centuries, but the COVID era diminution is certainly a cause for concern. The RSC does its bit in Stratford and tours, to the extent that finances permit, and other regional theatres occasionally take the leap, but such ventures are becoming increasingly rare.
In London, not too many years ago, that could be a wide variety of Shakespearean productions, some supported by the RSC, others regularly appearing at Shakespeare’s Globe, Regents Park, the National Theatre and the Bridge. In addition, West End producers would take an occasional punt if the right star name is available, while subsidised theatres across the city would also try their luck.
This is where the stealth is coming in. When Rufus Norris took over the National, there was a gap in his CV when it came to the Bard. Where Sir Nicholas Hytner had clearly been in thrall, his successor has largely steered clear. Similarly, the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park has slyly cut its output, while in a wise commercial move, Sir Nicholas and his team have committed the Bridge to a run of Guys and Dolls that could run in perpetuity.
As a result, there are fewer productions, and for the most part these only represent a very small selection of Shakespeare’s most popular works and the city’s theatregoers are suffering from intellectual deprivation.
The statistics are stark. Ignoring very short runs at small or outdoor venues, on BTG, which is generally comprehensive, only 11 productions with London openings (including four at fringe venues) have been reviewed but even this flatters the reality.
Five of the remaining seven were split between the two Shakespeare’s Globe spaces, while there were three Macbeths and two Othellos. A random comparison shows that in 2006, there were 18 London openings (with more limited repetition), only one of which was on the fringe.
Summarising, London has had the opportunity to see only seven of Shakespeare’s 37 plays at just seven theatres. In addition, and it is not necessarily a bad thing, when we do get big announcements, they are almost always centred on some kind of selling point that can sound to some like a gimmick.
Either one or more big-name TV or film superstar is involved or diversity is not so much an underlying theme as the sole reason for the production. Sometimes, rather than novelty, this can lead to unforgettable achievements; think of Glenda Jackson as King Lear and any number of recent female Hamlets, some of them from ethnically diverse backgrounds. Even the auteur-director approach, producing wild, ultra-modern takes on the classics, seems to be disappearing along with the funding.
In the short term, we might face short rations. There may be little more than occasional revivals to harness the marketing powers of TV and film favourites and, conceivably, solo or chamber adaptations that will probably confuse rather than please those trying Shakespeare for the first time but very little else.
Is there hope for the future? Of course. As noted, there have always been peaks and troughs and the work is too strong to be ignored for very long.