The Joys of Subsidy

Click here to hear the National Theatre’s Tom Morris discuss the challenge of programming innovative work.
London’s National Theatre is a building only a concrete salesman could love. Jonathan Miller, an early associate director, called it “a mixture of Gatwick airport and Brent Cross shopping centre.” In a city now enlivened by buildings that are downright amusing—the Gherkin, the Millennium Bridge, Shakespeare’s Globe —the gray edifice on the South Bank of the Thames is an unwelcome monument to the not-too-swinging ‘70s.

Inside, though, it’s a different story. Most theaters are shuttered until show time—a box-office window the only hope of human contact—but the National welcomes a steady stream of visitors from 10 each morning. There are three separate theaters, with total seating for 2,300, as well as bars, restaurants, and a fantastic bookstore. It’s a space that invites exploration, which may explain why 20,000 people a year shell out $8 to take a backstage tour.

National Theatre Associate Director Tom Morris

Shortly before a matinee performance, I chatted with Associate Director Tom Morris in the bar outside the Olivier Theatre as theatergoers around us studied their programs. An impossibly boyish 40-year-old, Morris’ roots are in fringe theater. He was a freelance journalist in the early ‘90s and served as artistic director of the Battersea Arts Center, a trend-setting fringe venue, from 1995 to 2004, when Nicholas Hytner, the National’s newly installed artistic director, lured him into the mainstream. Unusually for someone on the creative side of the arts, he styles himself a “producer.” But he’s not a money man; he’s a facilitator who describes his job as being “to give opportunities to artists.” He’s one of those rare people who can spike his conversation with theater and management jargon and still come across as sharp and dauntingly articulate.

Before the National Theatre Company finally moved into its new home on the South Bank in 1976, regional and commercial theaters opposed the infusion of government funds, fearing the money would give the National an unfair advantage. Thirty years later, with Arts Council funding doled out more liberally, there’s less grumbling on that score, but Morris is a staunch defender of “proper subsidy.” He believes, “A commercial theater in the West End is doing what it can to entertain on a commercial basis.” Whatever artistic aspirations the creative team might have are secondary to the need to sell tickets. Subsidized institutions, on the other hand, are subject to all manner of obligations. A theater receiving public funds “has the duty to open a forum in which anyone from Britain—or anyone visiting Britain who wants to engage in British culture—can engage with artists who are addressing issues, stories, and ideas which are current in the society,” he explained. “You can’t take the money whimsically—you have to try to make the program representative of the people who live in this country, and you have to try to make the work that goes on representative of the issues of the day. And none of those constraints apply to the West End or non-subsidized theaters.”

One of Nicholas Hytner’s most celebrated achievements at the National is the “Travelex £10 season,” which uses sponsorship funds to keep the price of 200,000 seats per year to around $17.50. For Morris, reducing ticket prices is a revolutionary act. “Research showed that for lots of people, price was a big barrier in deciding whether or not they went to the theater. But when you put on a show and charge people £10 to see it, the tightness that surrounds the purchase of a ticket—which is essentially about whether or not you’re getting your money’s worth in terms of production values, star casting, or whatever—is relaxed,” he said. Audiences can enter the theater with a more open mind than if they had paid $80 to see a West End show.

Can heavy subsidies provide “the right to fail”—giving artists the freedom to pursue innovative and challenging work that may not have obvious commercial appeal? When I saw the National’s new production of The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Peter Shaffer’s epic tale of how Francisco Pizarro and 167 European mercenaries subjugated the Incan empire of 24 million, no one seemed to reduce their expectations because the seats had come cheap—and nor would they need to.

The play, the National’s first world premiere back in 1964, is sadly dated. Forty years have rendered Shaffer’s instructions that the Incans should speak in a stylized language embarrassing. As Emperor Atahualpa, the commanding actor Paterson Joseph sounded like Yul Brynner in The King and I. And the work’s philosophical reflections on war, conquest, plunder, and religion, while speaking to contemporary issues, now seem blindingly obvious. But for all that, as a theatergoer accustomed to Broadway’s underpopulated stages, where you rarely see more than four actors in a straight play, I was thrilled to see a cast of more than 30 artists bounding around the Olivier’s magnificent space. True, the budgetary constraints of the Travelex £10 season may have led director Trevor Nunn to place too much reliance on parachute silk and strobe lights, but no one goes to the theater for special effects. 

The Royal Hunt of the Sun is one of eight works currently playing in a funky rotation at the National. The repertory system means that it’s often a challenge to figure out when you can see a show. (Royal Hunt, for example, is scheduled for 23 performances in May, five in June, eight in July, and four in August.) David Hare recently cited the National’s perpetual traffic jam of a schedule as one reason he decided to premiere his next play on Broadway rather than at the National—site of the first productions of 13 of his plays. He was frustrated that no more dates could be added after Stuff Happens did boffo business for its 60 scheduled performances in 2004. For Morris, Hare’s play represents one of those instances “where you wish that the bits of the planning machine that are rigid were suddenly flexible.” Still, he defends the system: “The alternative is that you work like a West End theater where you have an open-ended run, and of course that’s dependent on being able to have the theatre dark at the end of that run.” That brings a dependency on “having things you can bring in or producers who can bring things in—that’s a completely different structure.” Put like that, commercial theater seems downright random—a series of premixed ingredients ready to be placed in a pan and stuffed into a West End oven.

Morris’ next big project is War Horse, the story of World War I as experienced by a horse. The work is “text-based”—it’s inspired by a book by Michael Morpurgo—but Morris’ approach isn’t typical. “I’m not saying, ‘OK, here’s a play, how are we going to put it on?’ It’s more like, ‘What’s the idea, and how are we going to deliver it?’ ” His first step was to approach South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Co. “They’re building the horse, who is playing the lead role,” he explains. So, maybe the West End isn’t the only place where casting comes first.