Has Adrian Noble lost the plot?

All's not well at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Productions are failing, actors are unhappy, talent is leaving. And, to add insult to injury, anything its artistic director can do, the National's can do better. By David Benedict

Adrian Noble's re-appointment as the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company was described by one leading theatre critic as "the most depressing appointment of 1995".

Two weeks ago, Les Enfants du Paradis, adapted and directed by Simon Callow, and intended as the grand finale to the current season, opened to reviews politely described as poor. Several of the actors received good notices but the production is widely regarded as a grand four-hour folly. Noble is said to have jumped at Callow's idea of adapting this unequivocal classic of the cinema screen for the stage. If the full-blown epic worked for David Edgar and Nicholas Nickleby, Noble may have reasoned, then why not for Callow and Les Enfants? Who knows, perhaps he might even have another Les Miserables on his hands.

With only 30-odd scheduled performances, Les Enfants du Paradis was never designed to be the saviour of the RSC. The best of companies have the odd dud, but the problems of this show - fundamentally, why was it chosen and then allowed to spiral out of control? - point to a deep malaise within the RSC.

Its supporters are quick to man the barricades. Only last week, Allied Domecq issued a press release declaring its pleasure at the favourable client response to its sponsorship of the RSC. As a brand name the RSC, a historic, prestigious theatre company, seems to have lost none of its clout in enhancing corporate image: in the commercial world it represents class and culture with a capital "C". And Adrian Noble's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream has just been filmed and the show is on a pre- Broadway tour of America, while back at home the new season has been announced and plans are still being finalised for an extensive national tour widening access to the company's work. Yet all is not well.

In the Seventies and Eighties, many argued that British theatre aspired to the condition of the RSC. Somehow, against the insuperable odds of diminishing funding, the company mounted classic productions, the repertoire had breadth and depth, actors honed their skills working their way up through the ranks, box-office was good and the twin homes in Stratford and London thrived. While there was no specific house-style, productions came with an imprimatur of quality. There were occasional disasters - the notorious musical of the Stephen King horror Carrie for one - but mostly it was a case of talent being fostered and intellectual weight being balanced with commercial success.

The last couple of years simply don't compare. There have been critical successes, most notably Noble's own production of The Cherry Orchard. But even this prompted Alastair Macaulay in the Financial Times and Paul Taylor on these pages to observe that it is odd to discover that Chekhov, rather than Shakespeare, inspires the RSC's director's best work.

Some of the problems are inherited. The Barbican has always been the butt of endless jokes. Successive bouts of tarting it up cannot disguise the fact that the building is deeply unwelcoming and resoundingly ugly. In the main theatre no one is more than 65ft from the stage, but if you're seated in the upper part of the house you feel as if you are about to topple over on to those below. The Pit, the smaller space, ought to give a sense of intimacy, but unlike, say, the National's Cottesloe, it feels claustrophobic. Stratford, on the other hand, boasts three stages, but production managers face a no-win scenario transferring a show to London from the warmth of Stratford's medium-sized Swan Theatre: either they risk losing immediacy by putting the play on to the Barbican's main stage or they have to squeeze it into the Pit. When Michael Bogdanov's high- voltage production of The Venetian Twins came into town, many argued that it would be a riot in the Pit. Instead, it played the main stage - which was exciting, just so long as you were in the centre stalls.

Noble is rumoured to hate the building, which may be part of the reason he has decided to tour the company further afield. That's fine, up to a point. But what is to happen to the Barbican theatre and its permanent staff while the company is on the road for six months of the year? And what of the ramifications for designers who have to take touring into consideration when creating sets?

The backbone of the repertoire is, of course, Shakespeare, but the strength of the RSC's glory days was dovetailing his work with bold contemporary writing. The company boasts an impressive number of writers on commission but, after several years, many of those plays have yet to see the light of day, and commissioning is only part of a real new-writing policy. Thanks to his uncanny knack of courting and developing popular taste, Stephen Daldry has returned the Royal Court to its place at the top of the new writing pile, with the Bush snapping at its heels. Richard Nelson is one of the very few playwrights with a real association with the RSC. Even David Edgar's hit Pentecost was actually commissioned by the National, which wanted rewrites and intended to book the play into the Cottesloe. Edgar begged to differ and took it off to the RSC, which proceeded to squeeze it into their smallest theatre, Stratford's The Other Place.

There have been popular successes. Fans point to the three current Olivier award nominations for Ian Judge's Twelfth Night, but they are all for different aspects of the show's design, not for Judge's work. Twelfth Night was a typically splashy, fun and popular production: nothing wrong with that, provided it is counterbalanced by other productions of greater weight. In the recent past, these would have been entrusted to directors like Deborah Warner, Phyllida Lloyd or Nicholas Hytner, all of whom were snapped up by the RSC relatively early in their careers. All have since moved on to the National. Katie Mitchell is going back to look after The Other Place, but she's the exception. She joins a team of directors whose recent productions have been distinctly lacklustre. David Thacker's ambitious pairing of The Tempest and Edward Bond's Bingo was a flop, so much so that a projected foreign tour had to be pulled. Gale Edwards's The Taming of the Shrew was notable for the house debut of Josie Lawrence, but not for its intellectual or dramatic rigour, while Noble's own Romeo and Juliet was described as "Verdi without the music".

In his memoirs, Robert Stephens spoke of Noble as a man he admired, but deplored the death of verse-speaking within the company, a fault initially attributable to drama training but not something the RSC would appear to be doing much to correct. The status of actors in the company has declined and morale is low. Simon Russell Beale is an outstanding example of the rise and rise of an actor through the company ranks, but again he is a rare exception. As one actor comments: "It is unwise to commit your body and soul to the company. They'll drop you whenever they feel like it." Others tell of listening to Noble talk of building a permanent company but then going outside the company to cast Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet. TV stars are now regularly imported for the choicest parts: it may assist box-office but does little for company spirit. Where once actors looked to the RSC as a regular provider of good parts, the National is now deemed a much more attractive place to be.

It is not entirely fair to make comparisons with the National, but their score-card makes far more stimulating reading. Johnny On a Spot and The Machine Wreckers were wrong-headed but there hasn't been an out-and-out turkey at the National for years. As with the RSC there is no discernible National house-style, but Richard Eyre's greatest strength as artistic director (aside from his underrated directing skills) is the personal taste that governs the planning of the repertoire and its execution. That, and his hands-on approach.

There was little evidence of Noble's fingerprints on Les Enfants du Paradis. Several RSC members complained about the subsequently criticised lighting, but nothing was done. Why didn't Noble step in? Was he over-committed elsewhere? Why was the production allowed to get so far before cuts (around 20 minutes) were insisted upon? The general manager David Brierley later conceded that, with hindsight, they should have changed the starting time (it comes down at about 11.30pm). As one critic remarked, these people are paid to make decisions beforehand.

The press conference for the RSC's new season was a curiously muted affair. Noble gave the briefest of introductions and then handed over to his new company director, Steven Pimlott, to announce the package, which includes yet another Macbeth, as if the seven productions in 1995 were not enough. Moreover, Noble refused to take questions from the assembled critics and reporters. Defensiveness maybe? "No," says one, "shrewd stage- management." "Arrogance," suggested another.

With the arrival of the immensely able Pimlott and the elevation of others to associate directorships, Noble may be able to steer the company out of the fine mess it has got itself into. But the RSC boss is going to have his work cut out proving that he is in charge of a company whose future can live up to its past.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own