Wilton's / Changing Stages

November 2000

Wilton's Music Hall, built behind the Prince of Denmark in 1859, is an extraordinary relic of the good old days. It must represent the grandest back room in pub history, with barley sugar columns supporting papier mâché balconies and, in its heyday, a chandelier of 27,000 crystals and 300 gas jets. Wilton's is now home to Broomhill Opera, who make imaginative use of its architecture and turn its diminutive scale to advantage. In their latest production, The Turn of The Screw, the line between stage and audience is lightly drawn: the action is as likely to take place above and around you as behind the proscenium arch. Sometimes, the intimacy of the place is almost shocking. As Miles lies dead on his governess' knee, single teardrops run down her cheeks and fall rhythmically on the skirt of her black dress. Human grief on a human scale.

Wilton's was packed, its 230 seats fought over, as they have been every night. The critical acclaim heaped on this captivating production and its superlative cast has obviously helped, but something else was drawing the crowds, too: a theatrical experience limited, by its very nature, to 230 people. It wasn't the exclusivity we were after. It was the intimacy.

The thought struck me again at a screening of Sir Richard Eyre's upcoming BBC2 series, Changing Stages. Unlike recent commentators, Eyre does not prophesy theatre's demise. But he does suggest that in the current century, theatre may live on in different, more intimate spaces, perhaps the changing stages of his title.

Theatres do seem to have been shrinking over the last few years. The National Lottery has funded plenty of large-scale venues, but it's interesting how many have made provision for small-scale performance, too. The Royal Opera House now has a 350- and 160-seater alongside the main stage; Sadler's Wells' Baylis Theatre seats 200. Other new facilities - Norden Farm in Maidenhead, Eastleigh's The Point, the Ustinov in Bath - all seat less than 300. For a country with a growing population, our theatres seem to be getting smaller.

But then theatre sizes have always fluctuated like women's hemlines. Throughout history, taverns have alternated with caverns in providing entertainment with a home. In 1674, Drury Lane had fewer than 1000 seats. By 1790, both Covent Garden and Drury Lane had expanded – one to 3000, the other to 3600 seats. More bums on more seats, but Richard Chamberlain, a contemporary playwright, pointed out the downside: 'Since the theatres have been so enlarged in their dimensions as to be henceforward theatres for spectators rather than playhouses for hearers, it is hardly to be wondered at if managers and directors encourage those representations to which their structure is best adapted.' In the book accompanying his series, Eyre argues that the expanding auditoria 'deprived playwrights of a stage for plays that had any kind of intimacy, and that dealt with relationships with any complexity or ambiguity'. What was good for profit was not necessarily good for art. The following century brought another reversal – although 'with the conception of the cavernous Olivier Theatre', Eyre adds, 'it was clear the lesson still hadn't been learnt'.

We live in a world of mass experience. In the first half of the last century, when food was home-cooked, clothes hand-made and most people's universe consisted of three or four adjacent streets, there was something exhilarating about going global, about sharing an experience with a crowd of thousands. Today, almost everything we buy, eat or wear is a global experience. Internet, satellite and digital technology mean that everything we see or hear can be seen or heard simultaneously across the world. There are very few opportunities left to experience on a human scale.

So perhaps it's good that theatres are shrinking again. Eyre closes his case with the idea that to survive, theatre must 'assert its dependence on the human body and the human voice'. In an arena where men turn to matchsticks and voices are only heard through amplification, this might not be so easy. If the lively arts are necessarily about human participatory action – about seeing and hearing rather than spectating – the future may well prove to be at Wilton's rather than Wembley.