Joyce McMillan: Lessons in co-production

Sally Messham stars as Nancy in Tipping The Velvet
Sally Messham stars as Nancy in Tipping The Velvet
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Take a look at the Royal Lyceum Theatre’s autumn programme for this 50th anniversary year, and you’ll see a short season book-ended by the recent smash-hit Lyceum production of Waiting For Godot, and the forthcoming Christmas show, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe.

In the middle, though – and set to open next week – there’s something else entirely: the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith’s stage version of Sarah Waters’s Victorian lesbian romance Tipping The Velvet, which opened in London four weeks ago, to a delighted audience response. The show is directed by Lyndsey Turner, who has recently won international fame as the director of the controversial Barbican Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch; and its presence in the Lyceum’s in-house programme raises all sorts of questions about the new culture of co-production and partnership between theatres which funding bodies seem so eager to encourage, as an obvious way of reducing costs.

For even a quick glance at the detail of how Tipping The Velvet was put together suggests that the process of co-production is far more complex than that. It’s clear that Tipping the Velvet is a Lyric Hammersmith show, conceived there, cast there, and rehearsed there. Yet the Lyceum organisation has been involved in discussions about the project from the outset. The scale of the production is dependent on resources the Lyceum has been willing to bring to it, in both cash and kind (some of the set has been built at the Lyceum’s Roseburn workshop), and the concept has partly been shaped by the idea of creating a show set in and around the world of Victorian theatre, for two exquisite Victorian auditoriums.

“It is emphatically not all about saving money,” says the Lyceum’s executive director Alex McGowan. “Tipping The Velvet is actually a more expensive show for us than, say, Faith Healer, the opening Lyceum production of this year; what the co-production does is to enable us to stage a bigger show, with a larger cast and a more complex set, than either theatre could afford on its own. If you’re doing a co-production project for the right reasons, though, then the upsides of it are huge, and not only for the audience, who get to see a wider range of work. It helps people working in theatre to expand their horizons, and to get to know – and be known by – different organisations; it’s great for career development, and for making you think in fresh ways about your own organisation.

And all of this points to what Mark Thomson, the Lyceum’s outgoing artistic director, says is the most significant thing he has learned about co-production; that the project has to be based on a genuine creative impulse, and not on some imposed structure. “That kind of structure,” he says, “leads rapidly to either to a lowest common denominator, or a kind of servitude, and neither of those is good. It’s also not good if co-production just becomes a way of reducing the amount of work created; that reduces opportunities for actors, writers, designers, directors, and takes away the distinctiveness of each company’s work.

“On the upside, we’ve done a huge amount of successful co-production in recent years, both as the lead producing house and in projects led by others; we led on last year’s Pressure, which was co-produced by Chichester Festival Theatre, whereas Crime And Punishment, for example, was led by the Citizens’. But you simply can’t afford to get locked into a co-production routine that makes you into a receiving house, for part of the year, rather than a producing theatre. It has to be about fun, about the work, about the creative stimulus of working with different people in a different company with different ideas. And it can’t be about obligation; because obligation is never, ever a good basis for art.”

• Tipping The Velvet, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, 28 October until 14 November,