The Royal National Theatre has begun its search for a new artistic director this week. The current position-holder Trevor Nunn has confirmed that he will not be staying on for a second term at the end of his five-year contract, which comes to a close in September 2001.

Nunn first revealed last November that he had no plans to renew his contract. It was rumoured at the time that he was irritated by the alleged sniping from the NT's board of directors and from the general strain of what is widely acknowledged as the most watched and controversial job in theatre.

In fact, since taking over in 1997, Nunn has faced criticism from many quarters for staging some high-profile duds (such as last year's Peer Gynt, Romeo and Juliet and The Villains' Opera), failing to appoint reliable associate directors to alleviate the management burden and, last but not least, unimaginative programming. He has, say his detractors, opted for far too many safe revivals of established hits over challenging new works.

Despite such flak, Nunn has presided over some of the National's biggest critical and commercial successes. Over the past few years, sell-outs such as All My Sons, Candide, Oklahoma! and Blue/Orange have won the National a cavalcade of Oliviers and other awards as well as enthusiastic audiences. His current musical, My Fair Lady, starring Jonathan Pryce and, at times, Martine McCutcheon, is also turning out to be a blockbuster with a West End slot confirmed for this summer and a Broadway transfer likely.

Over the coming months, the National has also silenced naysayers with a schedule including a raft of premieres, not least Patrick Marber's latest, Howard Katz, as well as new plays by Charlotte Jones, Mark Ravenhill and Tom Stoppard.

A statement released by the National's board said that Nunn has "generously agreed to stay in post until a successor is ready to take over", which may mean his reign is extended a few months beyond September. Even so, Nunn's stint in the job will be the shortest yet. His predecessors, Peter Hall and Richard Eyre, racked up 15 and nearly 10 years, respectively, on the job.

It is speculated that Nunn will return to the commercial sector as a freelance director following his time at the National. His direction of international blockbusters such as Cats, Les Miserables, Starlight Express and Sunset Boulevard has made Nunn a millionaire many times over, and he's already set to pick up another large sum for the West End transfer of My Fair Lady.

Contenders to replace Nunn include Nicholas Hytner, John Caird, former Royal Court director Stephen Daldry, Donmar Warehouse director Sam Mendes and the West Yorkshire Playhouse's Jude Kelly. Many of those mooted have considerable commitments elsewhere, including burgeoning film careers. Options for a shared directorship or a splitting of management responsibility with an executive director appointment are, reportedly, being considered.

- by Terri Paddock