The shifting sands of British theatre

Excellent news this week as Rupert Goold was announced the new artistic director of the Almeida Theatrefollowing Michael Attenborough hugely successful tenure. Now firmly established as one of the most influential theatres that bridge the gap between the West End and the regions, it is difficult to remember that 11 years ago the Almeida was running a sizable deficit and that Attenborough not only turned this on its head but did so whilst also almost doubling the number of new productions.

Rupert Goold has a challenge on his hands but the freedom of the role, and his own prior knowledge of the space through working on Headlong co-productions, allows him to enter on a firm footing. His own uniquely stylistic flair, as recognisable in theatre as Tarintino is in film, make the possibility of creative control over an entire programme a most enticing one proposition for the audience.

Goold’s Macbeth was praised to the heavens by critics on both sides of the Atlantic; brilliantly designed, blessed with the stand-out performance from Patrick Stewart’s illustrious career and one more than equalled by Kate Fleetwood’s splendid Lady Macbeth. Goold’s production manages to maintain the golden thread that so often eludes directors of style; every element contributes something to the whole enabling the sum to be so much greater than the parts. Most pleasingly, it is also available for anyone to see as it was expertly captured for the BBC; rather sickeningly Goold proves himself to be equally at home in this medium, and the transfer retains a spirit and vitality that was sadly lacking in the televised version of Hamlet with David Tennant.

The extent to which I think this is seminal viewing is the fact that I am prepared to suggest buying something from Amazon in order to do so – boycott be damned, it is just too good.

Rupert Goold is only the latest in a line of seat-swapping that has amounted to a seismic shift in the theatrical landscape. The last couple of years have come to feel like a pivotal moment for the next generation to pick up the baton from their predecessors. Coinciding with a new political landscape, we are seeing the emergence of a new wave of directors and producers who will be charged with guiding British theatre through the murky quagmire of reduced funding and a more oppositional approach to politics.

It is too early to say but it could mean a return to more overt political dramas. One of the problems of the Labour regime is that they remained difficult to criticise following the experience of almost twenty years of EnronConservative power – and even more so when they pumped more money into the cultural landscape than it had seen in years. Where Labour were criticised, most excoriatingly by David Hare, was on foreign policy, or more accurately their foreign policy in Iraq – less was said about interventions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo.

During the Labour years it is hard to think of many plays that really sought to tackle domestic policy until the financial meltdown made everyone realise how far the country had sleepwalked into inequality under the watchful eyes of a supposedly centre-left government. One can only hope that the shake-up can also dislodge the art of the politics and reveal a new generation of dramatists less concerned with the ‘I’ than the ‘We’.


The most high profile, and contested, position up-for-grabs was that to succeed Michael Boyd as Artistic Director at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Whilst the National Theatre has more power and money, it is hard to dispute the RSC still carries the most prestige – flying the flag for Shakespeare and under Boyd’s leadership emerging from the mire with a reinvigorated sense of self. It is questionable whether anyone other than Gregory Doran had a look in, and the press release is rather telling ‘‘Greg Doran is a perfect choice for the RSC and is well known to all our audiences. His long history with the Company[…]’. It contains every impression of wanting to promote from within and maintaining a sense of continuity in a company that has too often lost its focus. Gregory Doran is without doubt an exceptional director but could well be seen as a safe pair of hands. However is this a bad thing when dealing with Shakespeare? Every year there will be attempts to reinvent Shakespeare for the modern age, most will be terrible and a few will not. In many ways it is much harder to breathe life into more traditional staging that are more interested in the text than in assuming what Shakespeare may have meant the text to mean.

Continuing outside of London, but yet further North, the National Theatre of Scotland has announced that Laurie Sansom will take over from Vicky Featherstone – herself off to the Royal Court to keep the merry-go-round spinning. The National Theatres’ of Wales and Scotland are probably the most important, and successful, developments in British theatre over the last 15 years. Vicky Featherstone was a hugely influential part of that culture of success, and was instrumental in bringing the widely acclaimed Black Watch to the stage, and the hugely entertaining Alan Cumming one-man Macbeth.

Vicky Featherstone

It is a shame that her departure was partly overshadowed by claims of a parochial attitude among the Theatre’s management but one hopes that they Royal Court will be the chief beneficiary of the time that she has spent outside of London. As an added intrigue, the poaching of Lucy Davies from the National Theatre of Wales to be an executive director at the Royal Court means that both have suffered a significant loss of leadership and one hopes that a firm hand is kept on the rudder of both organisations.

And the final move, and probably the most written about, is that of Josie Rourke taking the reigns at the Donmar Warehouse. Already a year into the programme we have seen an interesting array of productions that, if not setting the world alight are at least suggestive of a non-confirmist mindset. Durrenmatt’s The Physicists is not a play that has aged gracefully but it is still good to see it revived, whilst an all-female Julius Caesar may have caught some predictable flak but it provides challenge and most importantly provides new insight into the group dynamic of political leadership that a traditional cast production cannot achieve. It does feel like we are still waiting for Rourke to stamp her authority on her tenure but it also feels like that production is not far away.

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