Pressure Drop
Wellcome Collection, London NW1
Opened 22 April, 2010
I had a vague intention of writing in this issue’s column about the decline in stage photography, and how difficult it usually is to accompany the reviews in Theatre Record with pictures that actually give you a sense of what the production looked like, as opposed to simple portraiture of the main players.  Then I realised that I would be writing this column a few hours before voting begins in the UK’s general election, and it became apparent that a far more pressing decline is in prospect.  As Michael Billington observes in the blog article quoted opposite, whatever colour (or colours) the next government consists of, it is all but certain that arts funding will take a beating  And it should be clear that these cuts will not just be brutal in their extent, but the behaviour of brutes.


One of the comments to Michael’s blog makes the age-old claim: “The arts will survive for a few years with cuts to funding.  The elderly and the sick will not!!!” [sic]  And, as others observe, it seems unarguable.   But far from it: in actuality, it is fundamentally bogus.  It does not compare like with like, implicitly balancing as it does the airy generality of “the arts” with the individual lives of “the elderly and the sick”.  If we compare generality with generality, of course the elderly and the sick will survive as a category, in exactly the same general sense as “the arts” will.  Cut arts funding and individual productions/projects/venues etc may collapse or never come to fruition, but artistic endeavour will continue.  Cut health funding – even to zero – and individual people will die, but people as a whole will continue to grow old and to get sick.  Of course, they may be sick in ways that can’t (or can’t reasonably) be cured and so their cases won’t repay attention either financially or electorally... just as the artworks that emerge under funding cuts may well be of lesser quality.  But, considered as a generality, “the elderly” and “the sick” would not simply survive under funding cuts – they would thrive.  Of course, no politician would ever dare make such an argument because it would seem... yes... brutal to too many voters.

Another commenter casts the net more widely, but in almost the same terms: “Its [sic] simple, the arts can and will survive with little or no funding.  Science, technology, education and health care will not.”  That, at least, does balance one generality against others.  And yet that in itself weakens the implicit claim that some areas of human and intellectual endeavour inherently require funding whereas others don’t.  Why will people be less likely to work in those other areas without subsidy than in the arts?  Will there be less personal motivation felt by individuals to forge their paths in those endeavours?  I don’t think so – less careerism, perhaps, but no less vocation.  The only reason I can see would be if they considered funding to be their right, which is a neat reversal of an all-too-frequent prejudice about arts luvvies.  They may, of course, achieve less in their work without funding, just as the arts will, but the claim wasn’t made about achievement but about survival, and in that respect there’s simply no difference between the arts and those other fields.  Once again, though, no politician would dare make an equal case, because – in another neat reversal – caring remotely as much about the arts as about science and technology (never mind health and education) is seen as somehow philistine.


This is the same cowardice as that which I indicated a few issues ago in plays about the increase in electoral appeal of the far right in Britain.  Every play, like every politician,  bases their position on the assumption that (in the words of Jo Caird on her theatre blog) “The people tempted to vote for the BNP have real and valid grievances that no one else appears to be addressing”.  No-one dares question the validity of these grievances, or to say that the reason other people get ahead in welfare queues is because they’re needier, or that the reason “local” people aren’t given priority is because there’s an obligation to all people in an area.  The thing is that rights apply to everybody, including people we may not approve of, and have to be applied equally.  But there’s neither political, commercial nor empathic audience capital in telling your listeners they’re wrong not just morally – for giving their grievances such bigoted forms of expression –  but in point of fact.  Mick Gordon’s script for Pressure Drop largely exhibits the same timidity, except for a couple of passing lines in which the character of Mick explodes against Tony’s bigotry by, among other things, telling him to just go out and get – or even create – a bloody job himself.  The most cogent rebuttal of “valid grievances” that I’ve heard has been by comedian Marcus Brigstocke: “They’re not ‘taking our jobs’, they’re DOING our jobs!”  That’s the sort of wisdom that has got Brigstocke cast as King Arthur in the tour of Spamalot!


If you navigate on the Guardian’s web site to the article in which Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg praises “My hero Samuel Beckett” (published in the newspaper on 1 May), you’ll read Clegg’s recollection that “My first encounter with Beckett was when I was studying in Minnesota and I acted in a student production of Krapp's Last Tape.  […] Since then I must have read Waiting For Godot – of course – a hundred times.”  Wait a second: he encountered Beckett’s work as an actor, but he talks entirely in terms of reading this great play?  Not a word about the double run of the recent West End production of it, or any other, of any other play.  What kind of a sense of priorities or perspective does that suggest?

I wish at this point that I could quote a pithy remark of my own about Clegg’s performance in a production of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, which I saw at the 1988 National Student Drama Festival.  Alas, that year’s issues of the Festival magazine Noises Off include only one review of the show, it’s not by me and it doesn’t even mention Clegg...  At the time of writing, it remains to be seen how many other reviews he’ll be getting in the next few years.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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