The government has insufficiently supported the crisis-hit theatre industry because it wants to “discourage ideas and dissent” the leading playwright Laura Wade has warned.
The perception persists, Wade believes, that theatre is a “frivolous” luxury, rather than valued as enriching, and that “people would be doing it whether or not they are being paid”. It had been taken for granted that most towns have a theatre, Wade added. “I think when we lose those, it will be a surprise.”
Her comments come in the week that seven trade unions published an open letter to the prime minister opposing funding cuts to creative and performing arts subjects in the higher education teaching grant budget for 2021–22. The proposed cuts are part of a plan to prioritise funding for other subjects that Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, has deemed “vital to the economy and labour markets”.
Cuts to funding would lead to drama studies “becoming the preserve of people who can afford to do it,” said Wade. “For me, that would have been a problem.”
Wade went to a state school and fell in love with theatre at the Sheffield Crucible. After studying drama at the University of Bristol she became one of the country’s most acclaimed playwrights.
Her 2010 play Posh, which transferred from the Royal Court in London to the West End, explored entitlement and privilege and was inspired by the University of Oxford’s elite Bullingdon Club, whose past members include Boris Johnson. With Johnson as prime minister, “there is a strong feeling of being governed by people who only really care about money and power”, she said, “and not at all about people’s lives’ meaning or things that make it more interesting. I find that very depressing. It’s hard not to see that as a deliberate policy to discourage ideas and dissent. That’s really troubling.”
Posh was turned into the film The Riot Club in 2014 and Wade is currently developing two new screenplays, as well as a TV series that is based on her 2018 play Home, I’m Darling, about a modern-day woman who is hopelessly devoted to the 1950s. Theatre, she said, remained a vital pipeline for emerging talents who went on to work in film and television. Those industries would suffer the knock-on effect of theatres’ financial difficulties. “We’ve all watched a lot of stuff [on TV] in the last year. We should be in a position to appreciate that more than ever.”
The creative industries contributed £111.7bn to the UK economy in 2018 and British theatre has been said to generate £6 for every £1 of funding. However, “even pre-pandemic we had to keep constantly arguing for our own existence and justifying the funding that gets paid back several times over,” said Wade. Earlier this year, the government added an extra £300m investment into the £1.57bn culture recovery fund announced last summer. But the lack of support for freelancers, who make up 70% of the theatre workforce, has been widely criticised. It was dismaying, said Wade, to see funding go primarily to “bricks and mortar and employees”.
A government spokesperson said: “We care passionately about supporting the arts which is why we have provided an unprecedented £2bn of dedicated financial support to stop organisations going bust and to support jobs, and are working flat out to get theatres and music venues back open safely. Every day we make progress with the vaccine rollout and we can start to look forward to the full reopening at step four [of the roadmap]”.
Next month, the Stephen Joseph theatre in Scarborough will present a revival of Home, I’m Darling, whose themes of cultural nostalgia, household politics and the “make do and mend” spirit will chime with audiences emerging from lockdown. The play follows Judy (portrayed in Tamara Harvey’s original 2018 production for the National Theatre and Theatr Clwyd by Katherine Parkinson) who has left her job in order to confect domestic bliss with her husband, Johnny, in a Welwyn Garden City semi that is styled with vintage decor. “Judy’s choice is maybe slightly less alien to [audiences] because people have been at home and finding comfort in chores and baking while the world outside has got scarier and scarier,” said Wade.
The play’s contrast of gender equality in the 1950s with the present day will also gain new resonance post lockdown. A UN Women report in November 2020 showed that women spend significantly more time than men on domestic chores and childcare and that this was exacerbated during the pandemic. UN Women’s deputy executive director Anita Bhatia told the BBC that it posed a “real risk of reverting to 1950s gender stereotypes”. It has “felt like a rolling back”, said Wade, who suggested “women have been particularly hard hit over the last year”.
Home, I’m Darling originated from Wade’s fascination with the idea that people could be nostalgic for an era that predates them and see it through rose-tinted glasses. Judy’s mother, Sylvia, looks back on the 50s as a decade when everything was grey. Wade also had what she calls a “slightly bloody-minded reaction to the idea that female writers tend to write things set in the domestic sphere and that those plays are in some way less artistically robust or valid or universal”
Wade’s plays have a sometimes startling perspective on home. In the darkly humorous Colder Than Here (2005), a dying mother and her daughter visit burial grounds almost as if house-hunting, to choose where she will be laid to rest. The family then decorate her cardboard coffin in preparation, as if painting a new room together. Other Hands (2006) features a heavy-breathing freezer, an abyss within a toaster and a corrupt computer. You can smell the rooms in her plays – whether it’s the grim stench from a hotel bed in Breathing Corpses (2005) or the elaborate hors d’oeuvres served by Judy in her cocktail dress.
Since its UK premiere, Home, I’m Darling has been staged in Germany (relocated to a Berlin suburb) and in Australia. For the revival at the Stephen Joseph theatre – which tours to Bolton’s Octagon and Theatre By the Lake in Keswick – Wade talked to the cast on Zoom and will attend a preview and pass on notes. In 2017 she granted permission for an all-female staging of Posh and said the result made her realise that the play is “much more about class than gender or masculinity. The most successful performances in that production were the ones who had the swagger and entitlement. It wasn’t about being a convincing boy but about being convincing posh.”
When the pandemic caused theatres to close in March 2020, tickets were already on sale for the (now delayed) West End run of Wade’s most recent play, The Watsons, after its earlier success at Chichester Festival theatre and the Menier Chocolate Factory in London. The play, directed by her partner, Samuel West, is adapted from an unfinished novel by Jane Austen and presents Austen’s characters having an existential crisis when they realise their author has abandoned them. The news is broken to them by a servant revealing herself to be a playwright, Laura, who pulls out a £10 banknote and tells them about their creator. It turns into a dazzling contemplation of an author’s relationship with their own characters.
It is more than a dozen years since it was suggested to Wade that she adapt a classic, but she didn’t want to do yet another Pride and Prejudice. Finding Austen’s abandoned novel led her to consider what would happen to a set of characters if you put them in a bottom drawer unfinished. But it was a difficult idea to realise. “For about a decade, I did draft after draft. I had a sick feeling when I sat down to have another go at it – it was like a bad head cold.”
Wade returned to the regency period for a new TV series she is developing. She has plans for another play, too, perhaps based around notions of comfort and what it takes to feel comfortable. Theatre has felt like a drug since she first saw an audience laugh at jokes she had written. Now, she wants to watch and write hopeful plays that “help in some way”, she said. “If we want to make people feel capable of changing things, a dose of optimism goes a long way.”