The storm over arts funding in England moved from opera to theatre this week, when the artistic director of one of London’s leading new writing houses resigned in response to the withdrawal of its Arts Council England grant. Its outgoing director, Roxana Silbert, said that the loss of its state subsidy of £766,455 a year meant it could no longer continue to function as a hub for new writing. Seventy-five playwrights turned out for a crisis meeting following the announcement, many of whom credit Hampstead theatre with giving them career-making breaks, and all of them worried about the effect on the fragile playwriting ecology of the country if a seedbed like Hampstead can only afford to stage guaranteed crowd-pleasers.
The 60-year-old north London venue is among 141 organisations cut adrift under Arts Council England’s radical three-year plan to reshape the creative economy of England. Called to account by the digital, culture, media and sport committee on Friday, the chief executive of the grant-giving government agency could only bat away a succession of local-interest criticisms from MPs with the statement that, of course, everything would be much better all round if only there was more money, but sadly there wasn’t – particularly in London, where it had been ordered to siphon £24m off to more needy areas over the next three years.
A suggestion that this demand was made by a previous culture secretary, and the new one may have a fresh approach “on some matters”, is no consolation five weeks after the axe has fallen, at the end of a nail-biting, 10-day delay imposed by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport itself. There was a theatricality to the ritualised parliamentary standoff that those arms-length Shakespearean agents Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would have appreciated, with the comic subplot that the Tory chair of the all-party committee had been suspended from the parliamentary party pending a police investigation, hours before it was due to convene, so an understudy had to step in.
This backstage chaos might be funny if it were not so serious for the future of an industry which – it was pointed out, in the context of another theatre cut off without a penny, the Oldham Coliseum – generates £8 for local economies for every £1 of public money spent. What exactly is it that is being levelled up, in the teeth of an energy and cost of living crisis, after 12 years in which the arts world has already lost more than a third its funding in real terms – gain or pain?
The life of a playwright is anyway notoriously precarious, with many defecting to the better-funded houses of mainland Europe to keep their careers afloat. Yet from Shakespeare to Stoppard, Aphra Behn to Lucy Prebble, playwriting has been a jewel in the UK’s cultural crown, studied and exported around the world. Its practitioners have enriched the related industries of film, television, radio and gaming. That London still receives a third of Arts Council England’s national portfolio funding is cold comfort. Venues that have been cut off – Hampstead, the Gate, the Donmar – are part of a joined-up, multidimensional world that does not abide by postcodes. The buck stops not with the arts council, but with the government.