Sunday, November 27, 2022

The ENO tragedy

My production of Die Valkyrie at ENO - 2002

The latest NPO announcements were, to say the least, drastic, and there's inevitably been a lot of very vocal reaction.  It's perhaps unfortunate that so much attention has been paid to the ENO being cut, given that so many other decisions were also very impactful. However, I'm not going to apologise for yet another blog post about the ENO, because 1) it's one of the national companies and so it absolutely deserves to be debated and 2) I have skin it this game.  

I first worked with ENO back in 1998, as Assistant Director on Nicholas Hytner's famous Xerxes: a production that I've since been able to revive both at the Coliseum and in the USA. The next year, I assisted Peter Sellars on Nixon in China: and so began a friendship which has been immensely beneficial to Border Crossings. Peter has been our Patron for years, and a very active one, giving talks both in person and online, as well as offering me an artistic sounding board.  I also worked with Deborah Warner, Phyllida Lloyd (a lot!), Calixto Bieito, Atom Egoyan....  I worked with conductors who taught me how to work with music, and singers whose ability to act through the voice made me understand a whole new layer of performance.  A lot of the protest about ENO's de-funding has focused on this aspect of the company - that it develops younger artists who go on to "make wonderful international careers" - but that surely isn't the point of public subsidy. The point of public subsidy is that the work is good in and of itself - and much of what we did in the first years of the 21st century was, I believe, exceptional. I remain incredibly proud of having directed the entire Ring cycle for the company, in a staging that made sense of the text's complexity and nuance, while acknowledging its elemental power and its simultaneously mythic and human scales. 

I know that's a subjective judgement, all the more so because it's a judgement on something I directed myself. But this actually goes to the heart of the problem, which is that it's very difficult to assess the quality of art, and theatrical art perhaps most of all. Because theatre is ephemeral, you can't be wise after the event. If you produce the theatrical equivalent of Van Gogh's Sunflowers, and get the same response he did, there will be no future critics able to re-assess your genius after you've lopped your ear off. There was a time when "artistic quality" was the main measure by which the Arts Council evaluated organisations, but it proved too slippery for government, too subjective, too unquantifiable. As a result, the main criteria by which the arts are assessed, and therefore financed, have become politically volatile - with results the ENO and others are now experiencing.  

Under New Labour, the arts were instrumentalised as a catalyst for social change. Long before #BlackLivesMatter, there was a strong emphasis on supporting artists from minority backgrounds, particularly if their work was also seen to be reaching audiences from those same backgrounds. This funding priority is still significant in cultural policy, although it now sits alongside other criteria, added during the period of Tory rule that began in 2010. Encouraging arts organisations to develop as businesses is a really significant aspect of this. Think, for example, of the Catalyst programme (which we went through): a politically motivated initiative encouraging artistic companies to learn from the American model of private philanthropy, with little understanding of the very different cultural context in the US.  Think also of the consultancy firms who have been moving in on larger organisations, restructuring, prioritising and measuring the deliverables. Rishi Sunak feels like the obvious person to emerge as Prime Minister in response to recent cultural history - but it's not because he's the first Asian to lead a UK government, so much as the first person with an MBA. 

Before his arrival Boris Johnson and Nadine Dorries had thrown one more policy consideration at the Arts Council in the form of the "levelling up" agenda, and that has been of huge importance to the most recent NPO round. It sounds laudable enough in theory - the idea was presumably that deprived areas (also known as former "Red Wall" seats) should be offered cultural opportunities to match wealthier parts of the country. The problem is that this self-evidently requires more funding for culture, not less. The only way the beleaguered Arts Council could allocate more money to some localities was to offer less to others. London was particularly targeted. A cynic might point out that London, with its exceptional theatre and opera, voted overwhelmingly Remain and is almost entirely Labour. And that the cultural provision and the politics of empathy are deeply connected.

The irony of all this in relation to the ENO is that the company had actually been very good at responding to the winds of political change. There are far more Black artists and staff there. They have exceptional access schemes and educational provision for young people. Their NPO bid actually included a proposal for a new arm of the company, called NEO, to tour outside London. And they got the consultants in...  of course they did.

One aspect of the NPO decisions that has not received the attention it should is how few of the organisations now funded are actually led by artists. It used to be a given that any arts organisation existed to follow an artistic vision, and that vision was provided by an artistic leader. Not any more. Most major organisations are now led by Executive Directors, who may not have the public profile of the Artistic Director, but are in fact senior to them, and make the key decisions. Art is now subordinate to "business sense".  

So here's another irony in relation to the ENO. As Mark Wigglesworth (a former artistic leader at the company) pointed out in his excellent piece for the Guardian, ENO did what it was told and asked the consultants McKinsey to help solve the financial challenges posed by an earlier cut. The logic of the response made sound business sense - do less opera so your costs go down. As Mark says: "The idea that you could expect the same amount of taxpayers’ money for doing less of the kind of work that required it was clearly problematic." There are other possible solutions, of course. There could be more productions like my Ring: done on a smaller budget, focussing on the acting and the music. The bizarre idea that a "successful" production is one that survives for thirty years could be jettisoned in favour of a theatrical approach which responds quickly to the historical moment of performance: and this would also serve to distinguish ENO more clearly from the Royal Opera, to which it has come to seem a sad second best, rather than a genuine alternative. But these are artistic decisions, and they need artists to make them.  Sound business sense will not make art.

I hope the ENO may somehow survive - of course I do. But if it doesn't, and that seems likely, then the crucial lesson for the sector is NOT that we need to become more business savvy, but that we need to become more imaginative, and to recognise that our organisations exist to support artistic visions - not the other way round.  

Wednesday, November 02, 2022


Paul Coe and Cecil Patten planting the Aboriginal flag on Dover Beach in 1976

On Monday, 31st October 2022, Home Secretary Suella Braverman described the arrival of refugees and migrants in small boats from across the Channel as an "invasion". It was an extraordinary use (or abuse) of language, but one characteristic of post-Brexit Britain, where, as Fintan O'Toole argues in his superb book Heroic Failure, there is a deliberate appropriation of victimhood by the former imperial power. Quite how people who have fled persecution in Iran or Afghanistan, or ongoing civil war in Syria, risking their lives in a small boats because there are no safe legal routes to Britain, can be regarded as "invaders" is beyond belief. How a country that seeks to deport them to Rwanda, a country with a very dubious human rights record, can be regarded as the innocent victim is equally bizarre. 

An invasion, just to be clear, is an act of aggression. It demonstrates an intention to possess the land invaded and to dominate its population.

Of course, the linguistic twist is deliberate. By casting Britain as the victim and the refugees as powerful aggressors, fear is unleashed and prejudice is compounded. The day before Braverman's pronouncement, a right-wing terrorist had attacked a migrant centre in Dover. If the migrants are constructed as aggressors, then his murderous bombing becomes an act of righteous self-defence. It's very dangerous.

There have been, and are, real invasions around the world. The invasion of Ukraine was a real invasion by a powerful state intent on acquiring more territory. The colonial invasions which Britain made against the lands now known as (for example) Australia and Canada were also real invasions. In these cases, however, the prevailing discourse in Britain tends to use terms like "discovery", so as to shift the moral balance. It was an important milestone when the City of Sydney chose to describe Cook's landing as an invasion in its official documentation. Since then, "Australia Day" is frequently referred to as "Invasion Day" by Indigenous activists and their allies, with a hugely different emotional resonance.

A few months ago, we unveiled a plaque on Dover Beach, of all places, to commemorate the actions of Aboriginal activists Paul Coe and Cecil Patten in 1976. Pointing up the illegal and aggressive nature of colonial actions, they staged an "invasion" of Britain, planting their flag on the beach and writing to the Prime Minister to explain that they now ruled his country. It was very funny - and it showed the absurdity of the original colonial claim.  

Here's a link to our video about the "Aboriginal Invasion".  I recommend it to the Home Secretary.