I care a lot about the NSDF. As I said in last year’s report, it effectively began my career as a critic; I spent a dozen years editing its daily magazine Noises Off; I’ve hitherto been unable to imagine an Easter spent anywhere else than at such an incredible cornucopia of performances, discussions, workshops, masterclasses and the like. I’ve been more or less directly plugged into the Festival machinery for over 15 years now. The danger, then, is that in reporting how this event seems distinctly to be changing for the worse, I may get bogged down in Festival politicking and minutiae that are of no interest to the average reader. I’ll try to avoid it, but some specifics will be necessary.
As was also the case last year, one of the most interesting aspects of Robert Hewison’s Sunday Times report, for experienced Festival-watchers, is what he refrains from saying. The fact, for instance, that he spends 500 words describing NSDF in general and historical terms before making any mention of the selected productions whose performances are the core of the Festival. Robert is also diplomatically silent about his and his fellow judges’ decision not to bestow the three most prestigious awards of the Festival, two of which are the gift of his own paper: the Buzz Goodbody Award, the Sunday Times Harold Hobson Student Critic’s Award and the Sunday Times Playwriting Award. For the second year, too, the award for new writing which was given (this year it was the PMA bursary) was bestowed only by dint of a little gerrymandering: Lucy Caldwell’s excellent play The River, although an early favourite for selection on its outing to the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe, inexplicably failed to make the final cut for Scarborough.
Indeed, far fewer domestic shows than usual were selected. Despite repeated advance denials from Festival management, rumours that the selection quota would be reduced proved well founded: instead of the usual 14-15 domestic productions, 2005 saw ten. (An eleventh had to withdraw over a matter of performance rights; one of the remaining ten circumvented this problem by simply keeping quiet about using significant chunks of material by a major playwright.)
The extra room was taken up with invited productions from a number of associated festivals in continental Europe (of which more later). Any move which increases young people’s exposure to international work is admirable, though when it happens on unequal terms – outside the competitive selection and evaluation process to which UK shows are subjected – and indeed at the expense of the domestic component, it’s open to question whether the first word of the Festival’s name is being sold short.
I’m afraid that, as it transpired, the most significant aspect of the international component in this golden jubilee NSDF was not the work itself but an almighty cock-up over programming. Drop-outs with varying degrees of notice meant that most Festivalgoers were deprived of seeing some of the best of the international work, contrary to the standard NSDF ethos of ensuring that as many Festivalgoers as possible see all shows. Indeed, over 100 people turned up to a “Marathon” event billed as including five separate European pieces, to find only two were to be performed. The Festival management had made no announcement of any kind prior to the performances, nor afterwards until directly prompted. (My, but I enjoyed being a gadfly this year!) The most charitable interpretation of this astounding oversight was that Festival director Andrew Loretto had resolutely set out to make the international component the flagship aspect of his administration, had seen it fall into breathtaking crisis and yet hadn’t actually thought to mention it to the Festival community on any of the numerous chances he had.
Access to the mediocre
I genuinely believe that such sincere if egregious oversight, rather than guilty silence, was the case. During the Festival week I compared Andrew’s directorate to the Blair government, and the analogy has proven closer than I suspected at the time. As with the Blair regime, there is a lack of joined-up thinking, an absence of realisation of how changes in one aspect of the Festival impact on other strands. (Another personal gripe: for a Festival supposedly so keen on getting media coverage in order to secure further funding, it might have been an idea if the only two reviewers apart from Robert Hewison – myself and Dan Bye of The Stage – had been properly ticketed rather than left to scrabble for cast-offs for some domestic shows and the depleted flagship international programme.) Like Blair, Andrew has a tendency to pass the buck when shortcomings are identified. Most damaging of all, though, is the apparent belief that initiatives equal results.
This year’s Festival went all out to embrace notions of diversity and access, trying to broaden the Festival’s social and physical base. Again, all thoroughly laudable, except when in practice it results in a significantly less worthwhile event: as Robert Hewison himself wrote in a paper on arts policy for the Demos thinktank, “There is no point in increasing access to the mediocre.” NSDF2005 was mediocre. Shows were not up to the standard expected by experienced Festgoers, sometimes falling lamentably short; daily discussions proved an unhelpfully easy ride, with even old hands feeling unable to raise trenchant criticisms; reviewing in Noises Off was, with a few honourable exceptions (see the examples on the previous page), lacking in finesse and subtlety. Companies were often likewise ill-equipped to deal with blunt criticism, and moreover disinclined to make any effort: the Babel company from Lewisham College responded to an intemperately worded criticism from the Festival magazine firstly by misremembering it and then shrilly and persistently misattributing it, and all other unsatisfactory opinions of their work, to institutional racism.
It was hard to avoid the conclusion that this fall in standards was an unwelcome by-product of a change in administrative policy. As the Blair government announces new initiatives and programmes (sometimes several times over) with great fanfare and then falls silent on how or whether those measures actually deliver on their promises, so it begins to seem as if the current NSDF management believes that the achievement lies in implementing ideas, without necessarily thinking to check whether they’re improving things in practice, or remembering to mention it when they plainly don’t work.
I’m sorry: I seem to have ended up talking about administrative politics after all. Well, then, let me conclude with a series of impressions of the week’s finest moments. There was the week’s final presentation, The Tides Of Time, a site-specific piece along the coast, worked up from scratch over the week and culminating in a thrilling pyrotechnic display (albeit one which made me fear that I might be mistaken for a huge wicker man and set alight). There was the delight of having the entire West family – Timothy, Samuel and Prunella Scales – all piling in for the weekend, taking workshops and getting social in the bar. There was the unintentionally hilarious irony of a discussion on censorship and freedom of expression which included several minutes of three various flavours of liberals (including playwright Tim Fountain) all shouting one another down. There was the glorious cynicism in print of Robert Hewison’s teenage daughter.
But such moments were sadly few. If NSDF is to arrest its rapid decline, it needs to learn that the reasoning “Something must be done about [X]; this is something; therefore this is what must be done” is nonsense, and often dangerous nonsense. Too many in this year’s Festival community seemed unwilling or unable to learn from experience; the Festival itself cannot afford the same attitude.
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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