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Arcola Rises as Fugard Fails

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The cyclical nature of theatre was reinforced this weekend with the triumphant opening of the new Arcola and the sad departure of Susannah York, lately a luminous denizen of fringe venues from the New End to the King's Head and the Croydon Warehouse.

She would have loved the new Arcola, and would certainly have worked there if invited. It's an exciting new space, so exciting that the Mayor of Hackney, Jules Pipe, nearly imploded as he welcomed the First Night audience on Friday.

Pipe bigged up the work of the Arcola's volunteers, the cultural buzz of the area, and the brilliant track record of what he claimed was Britain's number one fringe theatre. He was still shouting at the audience and waving his arms around as the lights dimmed and the play started...

The place is an old council building situated right opposite the shiny new Dalston Junction station. Personally, I'll miss the tatty ambience half a mile up the road at the old Arcola, once a carpet factory, and especially the excellent kebab houses in that area.

But the new Arcola, opening with Rebecca Lenkiewicz's The Painter, with Toby Jones as JMW Turner, is a wonderful disused warehouse and paint-making factory dating back to 1766 (where it is not inconceivable that Turner himself collected his materials) -- with two performance spaces, as before, and an arts lab and rehearsal room upstairs -- "with windows!" -- sponsored by Bloomberg: it's an instant smash hit.

Some theatres have atmosphere, some don't; you know immediately, said Peggy Ashcroft. This just does, emphatically so. It's high and handsome, with all the attributes (and steel girders) of a "found" industrial space much like the old Arcola, or the Viaduct in Halifax.

There's just one problem: the foyer/bar area is a cramped L-shape space that makes you long, claustrophobically, for either the auditorium within or the street without. A wall, or a partition or two, needs knocking down.

Rebecca Lenkiewicz's play is a good deal more satisfactory than the last Arcola play about a painter and his model, Timberlake Wertenbaker's The Line, but it had the added advantage of being born along on the euphoria of the occasion.

Not only the mayor was cheering it on. The audience was packed with luminaries including a celebrity clutch of directors and programmers: Dominic Dromgoole of the Globe, Nicolas Kent of the Tricycle, David Farr of the RSC, and Toni Racklin of the Barbican, as well as Annabel Arden, co-founder of Complicite, and Simon Reade, formerly of the Bristol Old Vic.

You can't see the place failing, really. I just hope Mehmet Ergen can manage the programme a little more tightly than of late down the road, and juggle it more successfully with his commitments back home in Istanbul. 

I've only just caught up with the disaster of the new 270-seater Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, which opened with tremendous fanfare last February (and salutatory articles by Paul Taylor and Benedict Nightingale) but has slumped into chaos and confusion with galloping public indifference and the expulsion of the resident company by their own patron, Eric Abraham, after the discovery of what he calls "certain financial irregularities." 

The theatre had failed to develop any significant relationship with its local coloured audience and it appears that Athol Fugard himself was embarrassed about having the theatre named for him.

Company leader Mark Dornford-May and his wife, the astonishing black actress Pauline Malefane (whose family also ran the theatre's canteen), have gone, and the reformed Isango Ensemble is meekly planning a season of Fugard plays to mark the writer's 80th birthday in 2012. 

The whole sorry saga is a lesson in how not to run a local theatre in a difficult political climate, one that I'm sure Mehmet Ergen will heed fully as he embarks on his new adventure in darkest Dalston.


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