Benedict Cumberbatch has sold out. I’m not talking artistically; I’m talking about the fact that, in less than a day, the Barbican’s production of Hamlet has been absolutely booked-up. Tickets to see Cumberbatch’s last London foray at the National Theatre in Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein were also rather difficult to get hold of. But the story of tickets selling quicker than a flash of summer lightning is not a new one. Gillian Anderson is also currently cramming in the punters at the Young Vic, contributing to what has been the fastest selling show in London’s theatre history, David Tennant caused a booking frenzy when he visited the capital with his interpretation of Hamlet, and James McAvoy in Macbeth meant you had to possibly commit regicide yourself to get in on the show.
So how does one go about procuring some of London’s hottest tickets? The answer: pay up!
Friends With Benefits
Many theatres have membership schemes. These are where you make a yearly “gift” to get a certain amount of extras as a thank you for financially supporting the venue. The most valuable of these benefits is priority booking. This is when these exclusive members get the chance to book seats before the rest of the plebs fight it out.
And it’s not just theatre that offer this priority perk either. The British Film Institute (BFI) also has a membership scheme which really comes into its own for the London Film and Flare (formerly London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival) festivals, where being a member is really the only way you’ll be a good shot at tickets for almost all their showings. Even mobile carrier O2 offers priority ticket allocations for its customers for events at its music/entertainment venues, meaning free mobile-to-mobile calls between pretty much everyone at Kate Bush’s upcoming tour.
A Costly Relationship
So if you really want to be sure to get tickets, committing yourself to a theatre is probably the best way to go. But how much will it cost you?
Well, that really depends on the theatre and how good a “friend” you want to be. The National Theatre has the cheapest basic membership that offers priority booking, at a mere £15 per year. But then, membership fees for higher tiers and other theatres can go for £100 or more. More philanthropic members of the public can even purchase packages for up to £50,000 (Almeida)!
But it’s worth it to be able to get those hot “tiks”, right?
“La membri teatro è mobile!”
Membership only gives you a better chance of getting seats by offering this priority period. Despite being part of an exclusive crowd that has first dibs, there are still stories of members having to fight for tickets among themselves, with servers and booking lines become so overload that they go down even when it’s just the presumably exclusive few who are able to book. Members who have been unable to get tickets during these priority periods, due to the theatre or member priority allocation selling out, then have battle it out with the rest of the public during the general booking period: sometimes ending up with no tickets at all.
Therefore, some theatres, like the Barbican, Donmar Warehouse, and Old Vic, have extra priority booking periods for members who are able to buy into a higher tier of membership, from £65 (Old Vic) upwards to £350 (Donmar Warehouse). So if you really want to get those seats, you’re looking at paying an additional up to two, three, or nearly ten times more per year than the actual ticket price itself for that extra level of chance.
I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Off The Stage
Part of the problem is that theatres and productions keep pulling in big acting names and causing massive box-office pandemoniums. It’s a marketing ploy and one that works. Create a hype, get someone involved that everyone’s going to want to see, and the show is a sell-out success even before the critics can get a sniff at the actual quality of direction, production, or in some cases, the play itself. The reliance on having a renowned star in a show is becoming a bit of a bore and a cynical exercise. A production doesn’t need a celebrity to be brilliant. Shakespeare in Love currently on in the West End is getting rave reviews despite no big-name brands appearing in it. Famously, when Tennant was unable to make several performances for Hamlet, his understudy, Edward Bennett, did a fantastic job receiving standing ovations, and was arguably a bigger smash than the Dr. Who actor himself.
But to suggest that the resolution to this problem is to keep the stars off the stage is an unfair one. Many of them can offer just as nuanced and interesting an interpretation of a character as any other professional actor, and should be free to do so. To disallow them to play these roles would be a loss to theatre, especially as many of today’s TV and film stars steeled their craft on the stage to begin with, and in many cases have really added something to a show that is unique and incredible. Whilst they should be allowed to appear on London’s stages, their presence really isn’t helping the situation.
A Costly Compromise
Memberships to artistic ventures and venues are nothing new, and have been around for decades as a way of supporting theatres and the work they do. These days, with sweeping funding cuts to the arts, theatres are having to rely more on the kindness of strangers (well, “Friends”) to enable them to continue putting our some rather marvellous shows. Theatres like the Old Vic have even taken to auctioning props on eBay to make up the funds they need. It might seem greedy on the surface, especially given the number of critical and sell-out hits they’ve had, but there are huge costs involved in putting on shows. For all the success and money the public see being poured into the theatre from ticket sales, there’s a lot more going out of it then you’d realise.
But what this creates is a very sad and uneasy compromise. The most anticipated and sought after theatre is becoming a thing that only those who can afford membership, particular the higher tears, can get a decent change of accessing. With London theatre officially having a bigger audience than the Premier League, you begin to realise the potential amount of theatre goers who will end up being priced out of seeing some great shows, especially if they don’t have they the tenacity and sheer luck needed during the general booking period.
Whilst the fringe still, and always will, offer some brilliant shows for much more reasonable prices, actors like Cumberbatch, Anderson, Tennant, and McAvoy shouldn’t be kept merely at the pleasure of those who can cough up the cash. They should be able to be seen by everyone.
It’s difficult situation to come up with a solution to. Limit the number of membership priority seats and/or stymie the priority booking period and you get a lot of disgruntled people who have paid-up for nought, causing theatres to lose that level of commitment and funding. Without the reliance on those who can act as such mini-philanthropists, we would probably lose some of our best theatres and wouldn’t be able to even have imagined productions such as Frankenstein, A Streetcar Named Desire, Hamlet, or Macbeth. Celebrity stars are unfortunately a key ingredient to ensure a production actually makes money rather than run at a loss and/or close prematurely (usually), so getting rid of those won’t solve things either. But without trying to give the general public more and fairer opportunities to get to see these shows, theatre may well become the playground for the relatively wealthy, enjoying an elitism that has stereotypically been seen as the reserve of opera.
But that’s not to say theatres are at all giving up on the general more cash-strapped public. Many still offer discount and low-cost tickets for shows. But these seem to be getting fewer, not because their allocation is shrinking but because their demand is growing. You just need to get up early enough to see the lengthy queues forming as early as 7am for returns and day tickets for some productions. Even broadcasting theatre to cinemas, another well-meaning and noble way of opening up the accessibility and increasing an audience outside of auditoriums, feels like a cheap consolation prize. In reality, you’re pretty much seeing a film and not a theatre show: it’s just not the same. It’s great that theatres are still looking to cater to those on lower budgets, but the truth is that, for want of trying, the provisions are becoming rather inadequate.
It’s a tricky conundrum, but one that should probably be seriously considered in order to keep theatre for everyone, even if there isn’t an immediate answer. This is made more pertinent when theatre groups, such as the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), have come under intense scrutiny about how they make their money recently.
But ultimately, there are a lot of people who would have liked to have seen Cumberbatch play the Prince of Denmark but lost out because they couldn’t pay for priority booking: not just because of a lack of availability. Theatre shouldn’t be proud of this.