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Michael Coveney: Greg hints at long-term RSC return to Barbican

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Ten years after the RSC left the Barbican on a rising tide of acrimony and bad feeling, new artistic director Gregory Doran yesterday announced that the company would return there with David Tennant leading the company in Richard II.

He also gave a clear indication that none of the West End theatres, or indeed the Roundhouse, where the RSC has camped out in recent years, were a satisfactory showcase for their Stratford-upon-Avon work which is produced on two thrust stages, the RST and the Swan.

Building a new London home is not being considered. Nor is, as Michael Boyd once suggested, moving the old Courtyard (which the RSC plans to recycle in part as a new Other Place, having promised Stratford that they would abandon it completely once the new theatre opened) to a riverside green site, or the O2 Centre, a plausible alternative.

"We cut down a tree in the forest when we left the Barbican," he said, so it really does look like a long-term return to the concrete fortress owned by the City of London is on the cards. Who'd have thought it? And what will happen to the Barbican's own international programme, which has been so spectacularly developed since the RSC left?

Doran, who has been with the RSC for a quarter of a century, gave an accomplished and effusive performance at his first press conference in charge, speaking rapidly and urgently as if  making up for lost time. Forward planning, he admitted, had always been the company's problem. No chance of that with him, no siree. 

The entire Shakespeare canon would be performed over the next five years, and all on the main Stratford stage, encompassing an arc from birth (the 450th anniversary in 2014) to death (the quartercentenary in 2016). The Swan would be re-dedicated to its original function of exploring the repertoire of the two centuries around  Shakespeare, from 1570 to 1750. That means Ben Jonson big time (hooray), though Volpone could be on the main stage, Middleton, Massinger, Fletcher and the Restoration dramatists.

The publication of Ben Jonson's first folio in 1616 was the key event, said Doran; without it, he doubts if Shakespeare's would have followed in 1623. So that landmark would be celebrated in 2016, along with  the death of Henslowe (who built the Rose in the same year) and the death, also, of Cervantes - James Fenton is considering  a new version of Don Quixote for the company.

Doran wants every play the RSC does to be "an event" and will consider doing much less, bringing back successful productions more often (as the RSC used to do), developing the special relationship with Newcastle (a passion of his newly appointed deputy, Erica Whyman, who also spoke impressively yesterday) while continuing the excellent education programme nurtured under Michael Boyd.

Doran made a point of paying tribute to producer Thelma Holt, whose "vision and sprinkling of madness" enabled him - with Bill Kenwright's money - to produce the "Jacobethan" season, and David Edgar's Written on the Heart, in the West End.

He didn't make any great play of the economic situation. "Matilda is allowing us to stand still while padddling very fast," he admitted, but you got the impression that policy and ideas would somehow generate the financial wellbeing of the RSC rather than the other way around, which is good news. There might be more collaboration with other thrust stage theatres, such as the Sheffield Crucible and the Chichester Festival Theatre.

Those two houses have artistic directors, Daniel Evans and Jonathan Church, that I should imagine Doran could work with. And the recruitment of Jonathan Munby (who will direct Ella Hickson's Wendy and Peter, and who worked with Doran on The Canterbury Tales), and of Jeremy Herrin (who will direct the stage premieres of Hilary Mantel's two historic - but to me, unreadable - blockbusters, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, in association  with a commercial company, Matthew Byam Shaw's Playful Productions) signals a change of personnel at the top of the company.

Doran gave no news of associate directors, saying that relationships would evolve in due course, but it is clear he is far closer to Mantel adaptor Mike Poulton and Munby than to Boyd's erstwhile colleagues David Farr and Nancy Meckler.

He frankly declared that he and Boyd disagreed on the idea of an ensemble. He wanted an ensemble to be led by leading actors, for the obvious reason that Shakespeare wrote hierarchically, a fact that necessitates "actors of real welly" though he hesitated to say "stars," and gave no impression that the company had, in his view, been under par in this respect in recent years (it has, in mine).

Who are the RSC "stars"? Jonathan Slinger? Greg Hicks? Katy Stephens? Harriet Walter? David Tennant? The latter, certainly, because of his national profile. But it's hard to say that actors of heft and magnetism comparable to David Warner, Ian Richardson, Janet Suzman, Estelle Kohler, Ian Holm, Alan Howard, even Juliet Stevenson and Fiona Shaw, have emerged in the last ten years.

Erica Whyman invoked the spirit of Buzz Goodbody, who launched The Other Place with Ben Kingsley's Hamlet (before committing suicide, aged just 28), while promising an anniversary TOP season of "radical mischief."

The meeting, which was held on the upper floor of Kettner's restaurant in Soho, dissolved in pleasantries, croissants and coffee. Later in the afternoon, Doran held a tea-time conference especially for the critics in the Cambridge Theatre, but only four turned up, which seemed slightly discourteous, even allowing for the weather and the opening at Hampstead Theatre on the outskirts.

This was our first chance, too, to meet Catherine Mallyon, the RSC's new executive director in succession to Vikki Heywood, and nothing she said made her sound too terrified or out of her depth; she particularly emphasised the virtues of Stratford headquarters and plans to upgrade the facilities there for the unrivalled team of scenic designers, costume makers and props department; the RSC's lately been awarded "stage one approval" of the Arts Council £2.147m refurbishment bid.

And Jacqui O' Hanlon, the RSC's spitfire director of education, confirmed that the company is now a fully participatory organisation in the cultural life of the country, not a Holy Grail for the privileged, enthusiastic few: "Our new partnerships with five regional theatres will mean  that, together, we can reach over 30,000 children and young people this year, bringing Shakespeare to life for local schools and their communities." That's the spirit!


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