'David Lan's risk-taking has made the Young Vic a beacon of excellence'

As David Lan announces he will step down from running the Young Vic, Sarah Crompton reflects on his time in charge

Proud pair: David Lan and A View From the Bridge director Ivo Van Hove
David Lan and A View From the Bridge director Ivo Van Hove
© Dan Wooller

The outpouring of affection and admiration that has greeted the news that David Lan is about to step down from the artistic directorship of the Young Vic after 17 years in charge is a tribute to the man.

But it is also an acknowledgement of his – and the Young Vic’s – vital importance to the British theatre scene as a whole. You may not have visited this small, welcoming space in London, but what you have seen on other stages has been affected by what Lan chose to programme. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, almost single-handedly, he opened up regular British theatre to the world, inviting the best directors, the most promising writers, the most exciting acting talent to fill his auditoria.

Season after season he pulled off an extraordinarily difficult balancing act of introducing the new and exciting

My sense is that before he arrived on the scene, it was always at festivals that I would see what was going on in continental Europe. And trying to glimpse the thoughts of writers from the Middle East or anywhere in Africa apart from the South was difficult and rare. Lan changed that. He programmed with breadth and brilliance, never neglecting the traditional repertory of British and European theatre – but opening it up, expanding its horizons. He was like a breath of fresh air.

It’s significant that those quickest to praise him – Rupert Goold, Simon Stephens, Robert Icke, Carrie Cracknell among them – are at the forefront of a new generation of theatre-makers who have benefitted from that open vista, and who are now shaping a different vision of British theatre for the future. Everything feels possible now, and that is in some part thanks to Lan.

The message of David Lan's time in charge is one of confidence

He has also been remarkably consistent in his judgement. I’ve spent a bit of time looking at previous productions at the Young Vic, and what is striking is just how strong each year of his leadership has been. Famously, Lan’s 2003 entire season which included a characteristically adventurous and eclectic mix of Le Costume, by Barney Simon, directed by Peter Brook and set in a South African township, an acrobatic Romeo and Juliet from Iceland, and an adaption of Skellig directed by Trevor Nunn, won an Olivier Award for its sheer excellence.

But year after year, season after season, he pulled off that extraordinarily difficult balancing act of introducing the new and exciting – step forward Ivo van Hove, whose A View From the Bridge was his first British directing gig – promoting the obscure and difficult and yet making people feel they were always in safe hands. I find that even productions I didn’t adore at the time – Michael Sheen‘s performance as Hamlet directed by Ian Rickson springs to mind – have stayed in my mind and made me see plays that I thought I knew well differently.

He has never been afraid to take a risk

As Lan sets off for what I can only imagine is a well-deserved rest, I think the message of his time in charge is one of confidence. He has made the Young Vic a beacon of excellence by believing in theatre and in himself and then following his instincts. Not everything has been a hit; he has staged sure fire winners that have disappointed, and taken gambles that have become crackling successes (Yerma was not the most obvious sensation, for example, yet it returns this month heaving with awards).

But he has never been afraid to take a risk. He never seems to have programmed while looking at the bottom line. That assurance is a very difficult quality to find when money is tight, critics are fierce and a flop must feel very scary. Yet it is just one of the qualities that Lan has radiated and it is one of the many things that has made him such an inspiration to so many.