Jonathan Kent (pictured) and Ian McDiarmid today announced their joint resignation as artistic directors of the Almeida Theatre, news that will come as a shock to audiences and industry insiders. The pair, who have built the Almeida up into arguably the most successful and certainly the most fashionable of theatrical empires, said in a statement that it was "time to go", although they will continue in the job until next summer.

The timing of Kent and McDiarmid has intensified speculation around another directorship - that of the National Theatre. Recruitment for that post has been ongoing for many months; its current holder, Trevor Nunn, leaves in September 2002. The departure of the Almeida's artistic directors will cause many to speculate that either one or both of them are in line for the NT job. Many industry commentators have in the past suggested that the National could be best run by a team rather than an individual.

Kent's name was amongst the original crop of alleged NT contenders. In a Whatsonstage.com survey in May, he came second (with 11%, after Stephen Daldry with a whopping 43%) as the theatregoers' choice for what is viewed as the most coveted but also most controversial position in British theatre. However, most industry insiders assumed Kent would never want to leave the Almeida where he and McDiarmid enjoy such free artistic reign. More recently, Nicholas Hytner and West Yorkshire Playhouse's Jude Kelly were rumoured to be the remaining frontrunners in the NT race, in which an announcement is expected soon.

Kent and McDiarmid took over at the Almeida in 1990. At the time, it was a tiny fringe theatre which acted mainly as a receiving house. Throughout the 1990s, the pair transformed it into a full-fledged producing outfit with an unrivalled reputation and a reach far beyond its home in Islington, north London. Amongst its many honours are no fewer than 45-odd theatre awards, including Olivier and Evening Standard awards for outstanding achievement. In addition to critical acclaim, the theatre has also regularly attracted stars of stage and screen - including Hollywood actors such as Kevin Spacey, Juliette Binoche and Liam Neeson - for its productions of classic revivals, ground-breaking re-interpretations and world premieres from heavyweights such as David Hare, Nicholas Wright, Edward Albee, Harold Pinter and Neil LaBute.

Under Kent and McDiarmid, the Almeida has achieved regular appearances in the West End (including a year-long residency at the Albery where they managed to stage a double bill of Racine, starring Diana Rigg), two summer seasons in Malvern and ten annual contemporary opera festivals. Other highlights of their reign have included the creation of new performance spaces in unlikely settings - including the Gainsborough Studios in Shoreditch, which last year hosted Ralph Fiennes' double dose of Shakespeare care of the Almeida, and the theatre's current home in a converted coach station at King's Cross.

In a recent interview with Whatsonstage.com, when asked what made the partnership with McDiarmid so successful, Kent commented: "We are very old friends who through the years have come to share an aesthetic."

In a statement issued with today's announcement, Kent elaborated on the pair's decision to call it quits. "An inherent truth in any artistic pursuit of this nature is that it cannot last forever," he said. "To have created, along with many others, a theatre of vision and commitment has been entirely rewarding, but we believe it is now time to go. We have tried to create an environment in which artists are able to do their best work, a way of working that has encouraged people to aspire, where the phrase 'that's impossible' has been replaced by 'there must be a way'. This has always been a high-risk, yet considered strategy, and one which we hope will continue."

Kent and McDiarmid will oversee the Almeida's return in winter 2002 to its Islington home, which has been undergoing a £4m refurbishment since the end of last year. Garry Hart, Almeida chairman, said today: "The Board is determined that the re-opening of the refurbished Almeida should be marked by the choice of a successor who will be able to bring to their work the same artistic distinction, creativity and vitality, and they know that, as they embark upon this process, they have the whole-hearted support of Jonathan Kent and Ian McDiarmid."

The Almeida's latest production, Chekhov's Platonov - in a new version by David Hare, directed by Kent and starring Aidan Gillen - opens at the King's Cross theatre next week.

- by Terri Paddock