Only at the very end of his gently submissive interrogation of Michael Billington at a National Theatre platform event to plug his State of the Nation tome did Nicholas Hytner throw away the script and come clean: he refuted entirely the idea that drama tends to adopt the liberal consensus.
And then in a wonderful fit of exasperation, he said the truth: there are not enough good plays being written to merit being put on. He therefore seemed to imply that if someone writes a half-way decent good play, it will, inevitably, be put on.
This was of not much interest to the actresses in the audience who had heard Billybong not choose the best actress he had ever seen. He chose Olivier as the best actor. But actress? He was schtum. Eileen Atkins, Sian Phillips and Sian Thomas — three of our finest — drew a corporate sigh of relief. If he’d mentioned Peggy Ashcroft it would have been fine. Judi and Maggie references might have caused a mini-riot.
David Hare said at the after-party that Hytner had said more than Billybong: in the manner of a soccer analyst, he had counted out 51 per cent possession over 49 per cent and joshingly accused Hytner of wanting to be interviewed himself more than he wanted to interview the man of the moment. This was a bit rich, given Hytner’s dedication to Hare’s next new play.
In fact, what was so good about the encounter was that it did proceed like a relaxed converation at the dinner table. My own reaction to the cosy cleverness of the chat, and indeed the book, which is a masterpiece in its way, is that two big issues have been sidled past: sponsorship and populism.
Both chaps agreed that “there is no downside to subsidy at all” when obviously there must be: just look at the executive/managerial command of public funds and the disgrace of a cheap ticket scheme that depends on sponsors rather than the investment of the taxpayer. Who is subsidy for — the audience or the artists?
And sponsorship — where Nick’s own mother is a prime mover — has smoothed paths, drawn teeth and castrated the radical agenda of all the big theatres. Why are there no new plays attacking the idea of sponsorship in a subsidised market? Why are there no new plays attacking Hytner, Hare and indeed Billington?
Instead of which, we got bromide about multiculturalism and a creeping unease with the “irrational theatre” of the Masque of the Red Death, one of the worst pieces of crap non-theatre ever perpetrated but here elevated as some sort of touchstone in a debate about “sensory” properties of the art form.
And populism? Not even fingered. The real national theatre of the 1980s was the musical, but as Billington discounts Cats, Les Miserables and Phantom in his pseudo-Marxian thesis of the innovative rock musical as a form of Thatcherite expression, the subject was a non-starter.
Still, it was a famous evening, even if Billingspoon’s belated espousal of Alan Ayckbourn and Mike Leigh was shamefully let slip by, as indeed was his too familiar references to playwrights by their first names. Michael Frayn must have wondered if “Michael” meant him or Barrett or Morpurgo or perhaps even Wilcox. There’s only one “Tom” but “Alan” was either Ayckbourn or Bennett.
Finally, both Hytner and Billington agreed that the writer is at the centre of our theatre and always will be. And Ballyhoo had a lovely metaphor to explain why our theatre was so successful. It was because the country was such a failure. Great Britain is in fact Little Britain and where once, in days of Empire, we turned up to political high tables in the role of Hamlet, these days we were stuck with Osric. This gave state-of-the-nation writers their real subject.