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Derek Jacobi: high ticket prices are making theatre ‘elitist’

Veteran actor, awarded Olivier for lifetime achievement, says cost must not prohibit putting ‘bums on seats’

Sir Derek Jacobi with his lifetime achievement award. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images

Sir Derek Jacobi has criticised the cost of ticket prices for theatre, saying that their exorbitance is making it an “elitist” pursuit. Theatre, he argued, should be open to all and “part of our blood and bones” instead.

Jacobi, 84, was honoured with a lifetime achievement prize at the Olivier awards ceremony on Sunday night at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

When he first became a passionate theatregoer, “it was much easier” to see plays cheaply, he said. The rise in prices is one of the biggest changes he had seen in the theatre industry over his career, he continued. “I’m not on the production side, the business side, so perhaps I’m talking through my hat but when they say it’s £150 for a seat in the stalls, I understand that – and it shocks me,” he said.

The most expensive ticket at A Little Life, which has just begun its run at the Harold Pinter theatre with James Norton in the cast, is £195. But prices for some of today’s most popular West End shows are more than double that quoted by Jacobi. Cabaret, which picked up seven awards at last year’s Oliviers, has tickets for £300 and so does A Streetcar Named Desire, which won the award for best revival at this year’s ceremony. There are “on stage” seats for A Little Life from £25, and ticket prices for Cabaret start at £30. A representative for A Streetcar Named Desire said that 83% of all its tickets have been sold at £100 or under.

Last year there was an outcry when the West End production Cock operated a “dynamic pricing” ticketing model that saw the cost of a seat rise to £400. Research by the Stage newspaper in 2017 revealed that the most expensive tickets for more than half of West End shows were above £100. Data collected by the Society of London Theatre for 2019 found that the average ticket price for its member venues, which include all of the commercial West End and London’s leading subsidised theatres, was £52.17.

“I’m not an economist – I don’t know the basics of how a theatre survives without money but it certainly can’t survive without bums on seats either,” said Jacobi. “And if the money is prohibitive to bums on seats then we’re up shit creek without a paddle.”

The cost of living crisis meant theatregoing was at particular risk of becoming elitist, said Jacobi, who said he was very conscious, “particularly in these straitened times, of [theatregoers] thinking more than twice about using your hard-earned money to go and enjoy yourself”.

Jacobi, who was one of the first actors to appear with Laurence Olivier’s fledgling National Theatre company in the 1960s, has won the best actor Olivier award twice, for his performances in Cyrano de Bergerac in 1983 and Twelfth Night in 2009. In 2016 he played Romeo’s contemporary Mercutio in a West End production of Romeo and Juliet directed by Kenneth Branagh. Jacobi was 77 at the time. “Age-blind” casting has also been adopted by the Royal Shakespeare Company for their forthcoming production of As You Like It, which will star 72-year-old Geraldine James as Rosalind. “If they can do it, then fine,” said Jacobi of older actors playing characters who are younger than them. He had initially resisted the idea of playing Mercutio, he said: “But after the first couple of minutes, age doesn’t matter.


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