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Nunn So Noble: Farewell Then

On the same day this week, Trevor Nunn & Adrian Noble step down as artistic directors of, respectively, the National & the RSC. Mark Shenton reminisces at the end of an era for the UK's two theatrical flagships.

By • West End


The National and the Royal Shakespeare Company - Britain's two flagship national theatre companies, at least in terms of the public funding they both receive, far and away more than anyone else - both bid formal farewell this week to the men who have run them for the past five and 12 years respectively. It's the end of an era and - as a new one now begins in April with the official arrival in the posts of their successors, Nicholas Hytner and Michael Boyd - it's time to reflect on the successes as well as the shortcomings and controversies that have marked the outgoing regimes.

Nunn-sense at the National

Trevor Nunn - the shortest serving of only four artistic directors who have run the National Theatre since it was founded in 1963 - signed off his tenure with Love's Labour's Lost, one of only three Shakespeare plays he directed during his time there. But there was no love lost between Nunn and some critics about the kind of priorities that saw Love's Labour's Lost programmed for just 26 performances, while Anything Goes - with which it was being performed in repertory and with many of the same company - received 80 performances.

It's one of the anomalies of his regime that Nunn - an indisputably great director of the classics, who previously ran the Royal Shakespeare Company for 18 years - actually personally staged more old Broadway musicals than plays by Britain's national playwright. One of those, Oklahoma! continued on to Broadway itself, closing in February, while My Fair Lady is still going strong at the West End's Theatre Royal Drury Lane - places where they might have seemed more at home anyway than at the National. But criticism of Nunn's commercialisation of the National was eventually muted by the recent revelation that he has donated all of his personal income from those productions back to the theatre.

And, pre-empting the artistic criticisms of such programming, he has written: "As a working-class boy, I have felt it to be my responsibility to defy a coterie of influential commentators, who I know disagree with me, by serving as many audiences as possible, popular and esoteric. I have insisted on the widest diversity of repertoire so that no one group or taste can claim ownership of the National." (See News, 24 Mar 2003)

The precise role

These aims are, of course, part of a much wider debate about what the precise role of a National Theatre should be: whether it leads or follows, whether it's a try-out house for commercial producers, whether it is itself a commercial organisation (in which case, why the public subsidy?). Tickets for musicals like Anything Goes on the South Bank cost up to £38 a ticket, just £2 cheaper than the regular top price in the West End. So it's not accessibility that the subsidy is providing to the audiences who already pay, through their taxes, for the show to go on.

Many of the 'influential commentators' that Nunn refers to above merely wish that the National do things that the West End can't or won't, and productions of Anything Goes - a musical last handsomely produced at the Prince Edward in 1989 - quite arguably isn't one of them. But then Nunn can at least point to the balance sheets and - with a little bit of his own help with the personal royalties he's returned to the coffers - boast that the theatre is "almost alone in being one of the country's leading arts institutions in the black."

On the other hand, last summer's epic The Coast of Utopia - three new Tom Stoppard plays played in repertoire and sometimes across a single day - is precisely the kind of dazzlingly ambitious enterprise that only a National Theatre can do. Nunn's productions of these, as well as new plays by David Edgar (Albert Speer) and Tennessee Williams (the unearthed Not About Nightingales, which also transferred to Broadway), proved that the epic sweep he brings to the classics could also gloriously inform new writing.

National highlights

In fact, Trevor Nunn's own productions - he directed 21 during the last five years, an average of four a year - are definitely amongst the highlights of all the shows staged during his tenure. They include such classics as Gorky's Summerfolk, Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and the best production I've ever seen of The Merchant of Venice, which won Henry Goodman a Best Actor Olivier for his Shylock.

With these and other offerings, the National that Nunn has run has routinely dominated the Olivier Awards nominations lists, and this year won a record-breaking ten trophies. Much of this award-laden work has continued on to nourish the West End and Broadway, such as the current Vincent in Brixton (now at Broadway's Golden Theatre) and Blue/Orange. Indeed, though the failure rate with new writing invariably exceeds the success one, Nunn's National has staged 60 new plays. This shift in emphasis to embrace the new was epitomised last year by the Transformation Season, which reconfigured the Lyttelton and added a hot, uncomfortable little studio space, the Loft, in the circle foyer areas for the presentation of new work that also sought to bring in new audiences.

While that season did produce Matthew Bourne's double Olivier Award-winning Play Without Words, it was otherwise a better idea on paper than in execution. The plays in the Loft, in particular, played to so few people - with seating capacity of 100 and most of them programmed for only 14 performances each - that, far from increasing access, it made it more exclusive than ever. However, Nunn, who calls Transformation "the single most exciting development of my tenure", has further commented that: "Just about everybody I spoke to shared that view and agreed the space had been so well converted, it seemed always to have been there. Other priorities have required that the Loft be removed and, I confess, on a rain-soaked day in January, as the sledgehammers knocked it all down, I watched and wept."

But, then, the National is constantly being rebuilt in new artistic images, led from the front by the director/producer appointed to run it. If Richard Eyre, who preceded Nunn, was arguably a more brilliant producer in opening the theatre to other talents, Nunn has continued to prove what a brilliant director he is. (And one who won't be idle long now that he's left: he goes next to direct Natasha Richardson in The Lady from the Sea as the re-opening production for the Almeida in May 2003).

None so Noble

If Trevor Nunn wept at the sight of sledgehammers at the National, Adrian Noble - who first joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1980, when Nunn was co-artistic director there with Terry Hands, and who succeeded Hands in charge of the company in 1991 - might have, with hindsight, avoided seeking to use a hammer to crack the nut of the RSC as it went into the new millennium.

While many of Noble's intentions were undoubtedly noble - such as seeking to attract bigger stars to the company again with shorter contracts than the two-year cycles actors were previously obliged to sign up to - other plans were less fully realised or not, seemingly, thought through at all.

Huge outcry understandably followed the announcement of a scheme that would have led, potentially, to the demolition of its main Stratford theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on the banks of the Avon, and the much-heralded creation of a 'Shakespeare Village' that sounded like a Disneyification of Stratford-upon-Avon. That plan, fortunately, hasn't reached fruition. But another - the company's withdrawal from its permanent London home at the Barbican Centre - was hastily pushed through and has now rendered the RSC officially homeless in London. There was never a more apt example of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Fleet of foot

The itinerant scheme was intended to make the company more 'fleet of foot' and reposition itself within the commercial marketplace of the West End, where it was formerly long resident at the Aldwych before the move to the unloved concrete bunker of the Barbican. What it's actually meant has been a crucial loss of identity. The RSC audience simply doesn't know where to find the company anymore. Post-Barbican seasons at an expensively converted Roundhouse in Chalk Farm made going to the RSC a quasi-fringe experience, while the gilded splendour of the Haymarket positioned it at the other extreme.

The Olivier Award-winning season of neglected Jacobean plays, seen at Stratford-upon-Avon's Swan Theatre last summer and featuring one of the RSC's star players Antony Sher, only came to the West End's Gielgud Theatre thanks to the commercial interventions of producers Thelma Holt and Bill Kenwright. As is the case with this summer's upcoming double bill of The Merry Wives of Windsor and Coriolanus, which will transfer to London's Old Vic care of Duncan Weldon and Paul Elliott (See News, 21 Mar 2003).

In the midst of the company upheaval he initiated, Noble took a shockingly ill-timed leave of absence last year to direct the big-budget musical of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the West End. And then, literally days after the reviews rolled in and assured the beleaguered leader a secure pension, he finally fell on his own sword and announced his resignation from the RSC.

History may yet not judge Adrian Noble quite so harshly as these facts seem to suggest. Certainly, during his long-serving directorship, there were times when his RSC star flew much higher than it has of late. The complete cycle of the history plays - for which Noble's successor Michael Boyd took the Olivier Award for Best Director in 2002 for Henry VI Parts One, Two and Three and Richard III - was a hugely ambitious undertaking that both thrilled and compelled. And Noble himself has had some notable Shakespearean successes with, amongst others, a 1994 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that subsequently transferred to Broadway, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and Cymbeline. He also emerged as a leading Chekhovian director with exhilarating accounts of The Cherry Orchard in 1996 and The Seagull in 1999.

On the other hand, more commercially, Noble's own attempt to provide the RSC with a modern equivalent of Les Miserables by staging a new production of the Broadway musical The Secret Garden quickly floundered when it transferred from Stratford to the Aldwych.

And so, Noble's successor Michael Boyd duly inherits a company still in significant artistic as well as financial crisis - the latter not at all helped by the Arts Council's latest three-year spending plan, which bestows the RSC with an excessively meagre increase in comparison with Hytner's National (See News, 26 Mar 2003). Those in charge of funding along with arts commentators, critics and audiences will be watching company's developments eagerly.

The RSC is a national institution - arguably, with its regional base and extensively touring commitments both at home and abroad - even more national than the National itself. It needs to be restored to its former glory. Over to you, Mr Boyd.


How Will History Judge Them?

Both Trevor Nunn and Adrian Noble have been, at turns, praised and pilloried during their directorships. And previous Big Debate audience surveys suggested that criticism and dissatisfaction was not the sole preserve of commentators in the media. But even at the height of their respective crises, many theatregoers believed that in future, with the benefit of hindsight, these leaders would be remembered more fondly.

As their tenures come to an end, what do people think now? If you have comments on how either artistic director has ultimately fared and how they will be regarded by future generations, please share them on the Whatsonstage.com Discussion Forum.


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