Cutting Down the Orange Tree?

I try not to use this blog for whingeing about the state of the world, but sometimes I get cross. The Arts Council has announced a re-jigging of its grants, which means giving more to the big players like the Royal Opera House and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and much less (sometimes nothing at all) to nearly two hundred smaller organisations. What amazes me is that among those in the line for punishment is the Orange Tree Theatre at Richmond.

As Michael Billington asked in the Guardian: “What madness is this? The Orange Tree is threatened with a severe grant cut even though it unearths more buried treasure than the National Theatre.”  He was reviewing  their latest show, a world premiere of a play by Fanny Burney  and one of their current season of unknown or forgotten plays by women.

The theatre tends to specialise in plays from the period that I’m most interested in, and last year I was very impressed by their excellent productions of Cicely Hamilton’s Diana of Dobson’s and Galsworthy’s The Skin Game.  These are intelligent, slightly wordy plays, of a type that is now highly unfashionable. The compact in-the-round Orange Tree is the ideal space for them, and the productions showed that both plays still have the power to engage an audience, and involve them in the debate. Both of the performances I went to were Thursday matinees (with even the standing area at the back of the audience packed). After the show, most of the audience stayed for a discussion with director and cast, andit was on a higher level than such discussions often are. Many of the audience were obviously regulars, and showed  knowledge of the authors and their period.

No other theatre explores this kind of repertory with such intelligent  dedication – so why the cuts? Is it because of that intelligent literate audience? A good proportion of us were silver-haired, and not many belonged to the arts bureaucrats’ favoured demographics; we weren’t very young or multi-ethnic. The problem with government subsidy is that politicians want to treat theatre as a branch of social services.  The Orange Tree, alas, isn’t doing enough to lure potential hooligans off the streets, and instead provides intellectual pleasure for the bookish classes.

There is more of the same coming up this season, with  plays by Susan Glaspell, an American whose short stories I’ve greatly enjoyed.  they start with the British premiere of Chains of Dew, a 1922 comedy, described thus in the programme:

A tale of poetry, birth control and bobbed hair by one of America’s finest writers. Will the liberal intelligentsia of New York manage to lure Seymore Standish, poet, away from his boring Banking life in Bluff City, where bridge and golf hold sway and where the League for Birth Control has not even a foothold?

Birth control and eugenics are a strong issue in American comic writing of  the twenties. Edith Wharton’s Twilight Sleep and P.G. Wodehouse’s The Coming of Bill tackle the issue in their own ways, and I want to see what Susan Glaspell makes of the theme.  Potentially even more interesting is their next show, a programme of Glaspell one-act plays.

Is there any other theatre in Britain that would have given us the chance to see these?


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