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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

RSC could crown wrong head

By Norman Lebrecht / July 10, 2002

The Royal Shakespeare Company will announce its new chief at the end of the month, and it is going to pick the wrong man. I know it's a man, since the short list is all male.

And I know that he is wrong for the job because the selection process has been so self-limiting that any chance of finding the right person to redeem a troubled national treasure was scotched from the outset.

The RSC, you will recall, was left headless when Adrian Noble gave up this spring, unsettled by the upheavals he had himself entrained - removing the company from its London base at the Barbican and, simultaneously, deciding to rebuild its Stratford theatre. He was also keen to make the company more flexible in accommodating big-name TV and movie actors.

Wars, Clausewitz taught, are best fought one front at a time. Noble ran into a double counter-assault from the London arts lobby and a colloquium of old codgers led by Dame Judi Dench and Sir Donald Sinden, who crustily upheld the status quo ante. The RSC board, chaired by a lawyer, Lord Alexander, apparently flapped in the crossfire and the nobly intentioned director, increasingly isolated, duly resigned.

What the RSC needed was a strong personality to rethink its aims, restore morale and drop a curtain on all the turbulence. But the chances of revival have been virtually ruled out by the narrowness of the search. The four contenders are, in bookies' order, the directors Greg Doran, Michael Boyd, John Caird (initially with Simon Russell Beale) and Michael Pennington. No surprises there. Doran is an accomplished insider who comes in tandem with his terrify-ingly talented actor-writer-painter partner, Antony Sher. The pair have many friends in the RSC. Their enemies say that putting them in charge would be like having the Macbeths stay over for the summer.

The other three are worthy in many professional ways, but not at this crucial moment when the company's existence is under challenge from critics and patrons who are no longer sure of its purpose.

Essentially, the RSC still runs along the lines conceived by Peter Hall in 1959, when he turned the shabby Memorial Theatre into an internationally respected ensemble with a blazing sense of mission and several millions in annual public funding. Hall was a singular combination of cultural visionary and practical mechanic. His successors, Trevor Nunn and Terry Hands, failed to rewrite the script. The RSC became indistinguishable in its multicultural, postmodern role confusion from other stately houses of pleasure - the Royal National Theatre, Covent Garden, the British Museum.

Renewal, to be fair, was Adrian Noble's brief. He failed to move the enterprise ahead because, like a street-corner estate agent, he became fixated on location, location, location. Noble sought solutions in changing buildings when the company needed to re-examine its core purpose. The rules of theatre-going were being electronically rewritten by a 21st century audience that takes its culture in tiny bytes. The issue was not where to play, but when, how long and to whom. Any temptation to look ahead, or open a window to the real world, was stoutly resisted by the board. No appeal went out to Ed Hall, the founder's son, to submit a new strategy. Hall, 35, has scored the Shakespeare hit of the season with his grim Rose Rage version of the Henry VI plays. Neither he, nor any of his contemporaries, were sounded out for the vacancy at the top. That may be cause for theatrical regret. The cause for national alarm is the RSC's refusal to look anywhere outside its own four walls for a leader to supply the context it so desperately requires. All four contenders are house-trained, heavily domesticated, familiar to the point of contempt.

Other arts in distress have been much bolder in their quest. Covent Garden, on its knees, was saved by an American, Michael Kaiser, who had never run an opera house, but had restored confidence in US ballet troupes by applying solid principles to modern circumstances. The British Museum, in despair, has gone for Neil MacGregor, an enterprisingly gifted aesthete from the world of fine arts. Tate Modern has been led since its inception by a Swede and a Spaniard.

But English theatre is a redoubt of Little-Englishness. No outsiders need apply, no women and no Johnny Foreigners, thank you. There are a dozen highly qualified candidates who should have been consulted in any competent process, if only to broaden the selectors' outlook. None, to my knowledge, was called.

Three women should certainly have made the short list. Jude Kelly created West Yorkshire Playhouse; Marianne Elliott has made a cracking success of the Royal Exchange theatre her father founded in Manchester; and Ruth McKenzie was an inspirational theatre boss in Nottingham before getting nutcrackered trying to merge the warring clans of Scottish Opera and Scottish Ballet. McKenzie has served as a ministerial adviser at the Department of Culture for the past three years and knows better than anyone how to work the state system.

At the Barbican, with which the RSC maintains tenuous contact, Clive Gillinson of the London Symphony Orchestra has witnessed ups and down for 18 years. While the RSC floundered, Gillinson turned the LSO, its Barbican co-resident, into the best-funded and best-sounding band in the land. Gillinson is a musician, a former cellist in the orchestra. He is also an avid theatre buff. He would bring just the right blend of inside knowledge and shrewd analysis to put the RSC back on course. So would Graham Sheffield, the Barbican's able artistic director, who has replaced the RSC season with a far more exciting range of programming.

Beyond the English stage, there is Hugues Gall, a French Anglophile who has run the opera houses of Geneva and Paris to international standard and is now being made to retire at the statutory age of 60. He has immense experience and a good five years left in him to turn the RSC around.

None of these contenders came close to being considered. "He's not one of us," hissed the thesps. "Whatever would Dame Judi think?"

And so the RSC is about to make a profoundly wrong choice - wrong for itself, wrong for English theatre, wrong for the country which, in an age of open communications, is no longer an island. The only person who can stop the RSC turning fatally inward is the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell. She needs to call in the short list and send it back to the drawing board before a problematic company becomes, in Shakespeare's epitaph, "a living monument".

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001