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A Royal Brouhaha In London

July 16, 1986|TYLER MARSHALL | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Charges of personal profiteering leveled against the heads of Britain's two most prestigious government-supported theater companies have touched off a major controversy here and highlighted a growing problem in relations between subsidized and commercial theaters.

Two recent investigative reports in the London Sunday Times alleged that Sir Peter Hall, artistic director of the National Theatre, and Trevor Nunn, his counterpart at the Royal Shakespeare Company, launched costly high-risk productions in their subsidized theaters and then reaped huge personal profits when the plays moved to commercial theaters.

The reports charged that Hall pocketed $3 million from "Amadeus," the box-office smash about the life of Mozart, and that the National Theatre ended up with less than $1 million of the production's commercial profits.

(Hall said later that he realized $1.1 million and the National $1.8 million.)

The newspaper charged that Nunn has neglected the Royal Shakespeare in recent years, precipitating an organizational crisis, and that he concentrated instead on lucrative commercial hits, including "Cats" and "Starlight Express," that have made him a multimillionaire.

The Royal Shakespeare denies that there is any crisis, and has expressed confidence in Nunn.

Under the terms of their contracts, both men are permitted to work outside their theaters and earn royalties on productions that move successfully to commercial theaters.

Hall called a news conference to deny any wrongdoing. Terry Hands, joint artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, issued a point-by-point rebuttal of the attack against Nunn, calling it "a botched assassination attempt."

Both men deny that they were about to resign under pressure, as charged in the articles. They say they plan to sue the Sunday Times for libel.

While Hall and Nunn have responded only to specific subsidiary points in the stories, people who closely monitor developments in the English theater world tend to dismiss as "nothing new" the central thrust of the articles--that the two, at little personal risk, have made considerable money on commercial productions in recent years.

But these people believe the controversy generated by the reports has helped focus attention on a significant problem that has accompanied the growth and success of subsidized theater: division of the proceeds from a subsidized production that becomes a hit.

The idea that productions can cross the divide from state-supported to commercial theater is widely applauded. Royalties can help defray costs and reduce the dependency on public funding.

The Royal Shakespeare Company, for example, realized $995,000--more than double its initial investment--from "Les Miserables" at the company's Barbican Theatre. The company continues to receive a weekly percentage of the box-office gross plus a share of overall profits from the Palace Theatre commercial production.

Not surprisingly, Hall and Nunn are enthusiastic supporters of such movement. Last week, Hall called the link between subsidized and commercial theaters "a splendidly effective compromise, typically British, a brilliant and imaginative extension of the mixed economy."

The question, however, is how to find the right balance in distributing what in recent years has become big money.

"Before the National and the Royal Shakespeare became so successful, it wasn't much of a problem," said Claire Venables, director of the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, one of the most important government-backed theaters outside London. "The money available to subsidized theaters (in a production) was smaller, the gamble was smaller and the commercial gains much lower. Success (of subsidized theaters) has changed all that."

Venables is one of six members of a commission of inquiry into the state of the English theater set up last January by the Arts Council. The council is a government-appointed body that will dispense $40 million in government subsidies this year to English theaters.

The National Theatre's share of this will be $12 million. The Royal Shakespeare Company will get $8 million.

The relationship between commercial and subsidized theater is one subject of the commission's investigation. The commission is due to complete its report in September.

Venables contends that subsidized theater companies investing money and resources in a production deserve more of the rewards from commercial success.

"We'll be looking at what the balance should be," she said.

Michael Billington, theater critic of the Guardian and also a member of the commission, noted that giving a director both freedom and a chance to profit from a successful production are essential if subsidized theaters like the National and the Royal Shakespeare are to attract people of quality.

"We simply don't have guidelines to ensure that most of the profits go back into the originating company's coffers but still give directors and others connected with the production some reward as well," Billington said.

He said the issue goes beyond the articles about Hall and Nunn.

"I know of one occasion where a free-lance director earned six times as much for a West End (London commercial theater) transfer as the regional company that initiated the project," he said.

Billington and others fear that the Sunday Times attacks on Nunn and Hall could tarnish the image of all subsidized theater, deepening what he called "the real crisis of English theater: a decline of financial support."

"They will make the cause of subsidized theater harder," he predicted.

Lamenting the personal nature of the press attacks on two of the country's most highly regarded directors, he added: "We really do hate success in this country."

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