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Change in the Heir to the RSC

The landscape of theatrical leadership has been dramatically altered over the past 12 months, culminating in last week's appointment of Michael Boyd as the new RSC chief. Mark Shenton analyses the company's dilemma & future prospects.

By • West End


This time last year, Britain's leading theatre companies were being run by Trevor Nunn, Adrian Noble, Ian McDiarmid and Jonathan Kent, Sam Mendes, Jenny Topper, Jude Kelly and Andrew Welch.

This time next year, those names will have been replaced by Nicholas Hytner, Michael Boyd (pictured), Michael Attenborough, Michael Grandage, Anthony Clark, Ian Brown, and a triumvirate of Steven Pimlott, Martin Duncan and Ruth Mackenzie, respectively at the National, RSC, Almeida, Donmar Warehouse, Hampstead, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Chichester Festival Theatre.

There's been a wholesale change at the top of many of our leading institutions - though life is more stable at the Royal Court (run by Ian Rickson), the Bush (Mike Bradwell), Lyric Hammersmith (Neil Bartlett), Soho Theatre (Abigail Morris), Tricycle (Nicolas Kent), Shakespeare's Globe (Mark Rylance) and BAC (Tom Morris).

Feeding Off the Regions & the RSC

Still, seldom has there been so much movement in the tectonic plates that make up the hierarchy of British theatre. In the diaspora of talent that this represents, it's fascinating, too, to observe how many of the old as well as the new incumbents hail from the Royal Shakespeare Company and regional theatre. Nunn, now running the National, previously of course ran the RSC, and it's a company where Hytner, next to run the National, directed a number of Shakespeare productions, as did Mendes.

And while Nunn began his career at Coventry, Hytner and Mendes respectively did some of their earliest work at Manchester and Chichester. Attenborough and Pimlott, meanwhile, have been associates at the RSC, alongside Boyd and Gregory Doran, during Noble's tenure. Grandage and Kent, both one-time actors, served their early theatrical apprenticeships at Glasgow's Citizens' Theatre and subsequently both acted for the RSC. Clark ran Manchester's Contact Theatre, Brown has run Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, and Mackenzie and Duncan previously hail from Nottingham Playhouse.

So all of their new appointments have fed off the richness of Britain's regional theatre, most notably that of the RSC. But, in spite of that fact, amazingly few of those talented individuals it nurtured seemed prepared to bring their skills back to the running of the RSC now - though perhaps that's not so surprising given its current crisis of identity. Revealingly, Michael Boyd has sought to make a virtue of some of the RSC's perceived failings of late, like its ill-thought-out abandonment of the Barbican Centre as its permanent London home, saying: "I think, on balance, it would have been impossible to move really radically forward without breaking that mould."

The Man to Mend the Mould

Now that the mould of the RSC has been broken, is Boyd the man to put it - or rather, a new form of mould - together again? In the midst of the current chaos, it was widely anticipated that the RSC would, of necessity, select an internal candidate rather than an external one, in order to consolidate the company and rally the morale that has sunk so very badly there.

The former RSC actor David Suchet, however, disagrees with this approach. "I'm not sure if someone from within can be as effective as someone from without. I was hoping it would be someone who can bring fresh insight to the company. If the existing board is still there and demands that the new director continues in the ways that we have been going, then the job is going to be almost impossible."

Assuming an internal candidate was essential, Michael Attenborough, who was until recently the RSC's principal associate director, might been a more obvious choice, though he ruled himself out prematurely when he accepted the Almeida helm. He, in turn, has now commented: "Michael faces a gargantuan and frightening financial position. He has to heal and strengthen a deeply worried and confused company." You can almost hear the relief in Attenborough's words as he continues, "But he is absolutely his own man, a very particular individual who loves reinvention on a radical level and takes nothing for granted. I know he will take the RSC back to its grassroots. Repairing the company will take a while, nobody should expect miracles overnight."

Steven Pimlott, another well-regarded former RSC associate, was also out of the running. He opted for a less high-profile stint Chichester, though the announcement of his appointment there last week - in an intriguing triumvirate that also includes the respected arts administrator Ruth Mackenzie and director Martin Duncan, both of whom have worked at Nottingham Playhouse - attracted a lot of attention and may bring the kind of glamour and glitter to the Sussex town that it has lately been lacking. So the RSC's loss is Chichester's gain.

A Two-Horse Race

The choice for the RSC board, therefore, came down to an essentially two-horse race between Boyd and the fourth long-term associate of Noble's tenure, Gregory Doran. Boyd - the 47-year-old founding director of Glasgow's Tron Theatre - has won out over his more flamboyant colleague, who has never run a theatre but is professionally and personally connected to one of the RSC's foremost actors, Antony Sher.

And while Boyd last year won a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Director for his part in the RSC's This England series of Shakespeare's history plays, Doran is currently represented by the Swan season of Jacobean plays that Michael Billington says is already helping to alter current perceptions of the RSC as a 'flailing giant'. According to the respected Guardian critic, it is only work like this - "of flair and imagination, built around the company idea" - that will do the trick.

Boyd has duly made an encouraging statement of principle that he seeks to put art first - rather than product, as it rather dubiously came to be known as under Noble. "One's prime aim is to create a space where there will be no excuses not to aspire to great art," he says. " The future is going to be bright for the RSC if we inspire the best artists to feel that we are their preferred place to do their most challenging work.... I am delighted to lead the RSC into its next chapter." He goes on, "My aspiration is to ensure that we are an agenda-setting theatre company. That's a challenge that really excites me."

Boyd's appointment has been endorsed by his embattled predecessor Noble, who praises him as "one of the most distinctive and original Shakespearean directors in the country. He has flair, intellectual rigour and real powers of leadership." Which will hopefully see the RSC through the anticipated "lean times" ahead.


For Whatsonstage.com’s News reports on last week's appointment, see the following stories (25 Jul 02):

  • Boyd Sees Bright RSC Future After 'Lean' Times
  • Troubled RSC Names Boyd as Successor to Noble


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