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.

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