Encore Theatre Magazine
:: Thursday, September 14, 2006 ::
Something for the Weekend
Nick Hytner has announced that he'd like the National to open on Sundays. Or rather he still would like the National to open on Sundays, since he also declared this in June. For someone who is so keen to open his theatre on a Sunday, he seems to be doing surprisingly little about it, as BECTU claim that they have had no official approach. And BECTU are the only ones likely to drive a hard bargain since most theatre workers are contracted according to a set number of performances and it won't mean a contractual change as such.
The Telegraph earlier this year reported that the National are offering themselves as a battering ram on behalf of the regional theatres who don't feel strong enough to argue it through with BECTU themselves. At an Arts Council meeting in October 2005 the National offered to spend eighteen months gathering information and costing out the proposal before introducing the scheme. The National, of course, has a very particular reason for wanting Sunday opening since it has an almost guaranteed audience; the redevelopment of the South Bank over the last few years means that there is now an established tourist walk that takes in the whole South Bank complex, from the London Eye, to Tate Modern and The Globe and then on past the Clink and off to Tower Bridge. The National, since its 90s redesign, is beautifully placed to become a stop along the way, but on a Sunday its eyes are closed. It is hard to imagine that the National wouldn't be able to fill at least a mid-afternoon matinee, perhaps a lunchtime and a late-afternoon matinee on a Sunday. Would most regional theatres have the same clear benefit from Sunday opening. You would expect double time, perhaps time and a half, on a Sunday. Are the audiences there to make that worthwhile?
The union's scepticism is understandable but a scheme that allows days off in lieu, an either/or for Saturdays or Sundays, a healthy overtime rate, or some combination of the three, should put most fears at rest. Given that shopping is universal on a Sunday and that most galleries and museums are available, that the cinemas are open and football is now as likely on Sunday as Saturday, it seems hard to justify the theatre's six-day week. The old proposal has always been to trade it off against Mondays, traditionally a hard day to sell, though the cheap deals that have been Monday inducements (notably at the Court) would disappear under such a scheme.
Of course, there have been some less sensible worries. John Roberts of the Lord's Day Observance Society (no, there really is one), has expressed the comments of his members with great clarity, pondering, 'It is fine going to see entertainment on a Sunday but what about the people working on the stage, backstage?' Which sounds like a humanitarian, even socialist concern. 'We are in danger of losing the concept of the family unit,' he added, as he carefully bolted the stable door.
Why can't families go to the theatre together, one would like to know. One suspects that Christians hide behind the idea of the family get-together because even they are not brazen enough to complain that it'll stop people going to church. Because if the family unit is a relic, mass church attendance isn't even in living memory.
There is something to be said for the communitas and sense of communal identity that comes from a shared day off, but this battle was lost a long time ago. The flexible working and 24-hour culture that we have been creeping towards over the last fifteen years mean that people find different ways of connecting, whether that be nongeographical forms of connectivity, virtual communities, or other ways of slicing one's identity to make connections that aren't mere accidents of birth. The theatre is, if anything, one of the more robust forms of collective cultural experience. More self-conscious and particular than cinema, less competitively-focused than football.
Which is why Encore supports Sunday opening.