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Gregory takes the helm

As his civil partner is Sir Antony Sher, I've often wondered if Greg Doran is therefore entitled to be known as the Lady Gregory, namesake of the founding spirit and playwright of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

It would be an appropriate moniker for this highly talented Lancastrian who was educated at a Catholic college in Preston before moving on to Bristol University, especially now that he's the new artistic director of the RSC, succeeding Michael Boyd next year after being a devoted chief associate but most definitely, also, his own man this past decade.

While Boyd has restored the ensemble principles and morale of the company, as well as supervising the move into the new Stratford-upon-Avon theatre, Doran has been heavily involved in textual matters - the revival of the "lost" play Cardenio, for instance, and the RSC's splendid new edition of the Complete Works edited by Jonathan Bate - as well as firing off fine productions such as the Patrick Stewart/Harriet Walter Antony and Cleopatra and the David Tennant Hamlet.  He does seem to combine qualities of John Barton and Trevor Nunn (and he favours Nunn's flowing Elizabethan locks hairstyle look).

I also like his track record in the Jacobean repertoire, and he's shown a sure touch with the new, as in David Edgar's excellent play about the King James Bible, Written on the Heart, which comes to the Duchess after Easter.
His main rival for the post was obviously Rupert Goold, who was putting a brave face on the news at the Almeida last night, where he joined the first night throng for Filumena. Was he disappointed, I asked him? He mumbled modestly about having two young children and hoping to work with Doran in the future as an associate director.

But as he already runs Headlong and never stops developing projects and rehearsing them - next up, a feature film, apparently - the burden of the RSC job would have been lightly borne. No, the RSC has taken the safe, but also the intellectually exciting, option of Doran, who has worked in and around the company for a quarter of a century (he first met Sher when he played one of the "Salads" in Sher's knock-out Merchant of Venice at Stratford) and not risked the full-scale reinvention that Goold might have instigated; now we shall never know if the RSC was ever brave enough to want a completely fresh start.

Doran is 52, so you can see him staying for ten years, by which time Goold will have moved on, who knows, to the National, where he must be now installed as joint favourite with Dominic Cooke to succeed Nicholas Hytner in two or three years' time.

One of the interesting things about both Michael Boyd and Nicholas Hytner is the way in which they have respectively embraced their closest rivals and tried to bring in elements of the newest work outside.

Boyd has given Goold, as well as David Farr, his head in the RSC, and called on the talents of Kathryn Hunter and Paul Hunt from Complicite and Told by an Idiot. Possibly the most intriguing production at Stratford this summer will be Goold's co-production, with Elizabeth LeCompte of the brilliant, ground-breaking Wooster Group, of Troilus and Cressida in the Swan.

And Hytner, with executive director Nick Starr, has opened NT doors at every opportunity for radical companies like DV8 and Punchdrunk while cannily incorporating maverick talents like Katie Mitchell and Mike Leigh. I think that's good for the NT, but I think now is the time for the RSC to declare its own individual hand much more strongly. And that should be made easier in the light of Doran's promise to restore leading classical actors at the RSC and to establish, once and for all, a new permanent home for the company in London.

One maverick talent who's managed to steer clear of both major monoliths is Philip Ridley, whose Shivered I caught up with this week at the Southwark Playhouse. It's easily the best play I've seen this year, a deeply poetic and imaginative piece about friendship, terror, sex and disability set in and around a disused Essex car plant, a symbol, like Ford's in Dagenham, perhaps, of a distant prosperity.

And it becomes the third oustanding piece of "Essex" writing this year, too, following David Eldridge's In Basildon and Luke Norris's Goodbye to All That, both at the Royal Court.

The world is upside down, and sparkling dangerously, in Philip Ridley plays. The central unseen image here is a video of a soldier's beheading that a young boy taunts the dead man's younger brother with. The brother beats him to a pulp, despite having mutant hands, and he spends the rest of the play in a wheelchair, attended by his recovering-obese mother.

The sixteen scenes are played not in chronological order, the kind of daring formal experiment we see far too little of these days, and one that is here deployed with nothing short of absolute mastery. It's a rich, disturbing and naggingly provocative play, and Russell Bolam's production is magnificently acted by, among others, Olivia Poulet, Amanda Daniels, Joseph Drake and Josh Williams. 
The other outstanding show I caught this week was Sound and Fury's Going Dark at the Young Vic, an exercise in sensory deprivation as much in the audience as in the play's protagonist, an astronomer who is going blind. I've been wondering ever since the black-out at Wednesday's matinee: is my reaction to it in any way different to that of a blind person watching? This is as much a philosophical question as a physical one, and the kind of conundrum that is rarely posed even at the new-look RSC and National Theatre.


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