People thought Stephen Unwin was mad to move to Crewe. They don't think so now

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The Independent Culture
"A few years ago I had a show on at the Royal Court Upstairs, and I remember thinking, I know everybody in the audience here," says Stephen Unwin who, shortly after that experience, took over the ailing, Crewe-based touring company Century Theatre in 1993. "People thought I was mad," he admits with an ill-concealed glint of triumph. His company, refashioned and re-named English Touring Theatre, has been raking in the plaudits ever since.

Kelly Hunter won the TMA Best Actress award for As You Like It in 1994 and Alan Cumming won Best Actor for Hamlet in 1993, both productions directed by Unwin. Nicholas Wright's The Importance of Being Earnest was highly praised. This week sees the arrival of Unwin's Macbeth at the Lyric Hammersmith, and Jonathan Harvey's Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club, the first new play ETT have attempted, continuing its transfer at the Criterion.

As the centre of England's rail-transport network, Crewe is probably the ideal location for a national touring company. But Unwin's move away from London has meant a marked change of style for him artistically. In the early Eighties he made a name for himself directing radical new work at the Traverse (where he was associate director), memorably Manfred Karge's Man to Man. With ETT, it's back to the classics - Shakespeare, Ibsen, Farquhar, Moliere - and a simple, even old-fashioned, approach.

"You have to be realistic about the context your work is seen in," he says emphatically. "We're touring plays to Worthing and Whitley Bay and Winchester. People who work in the bubble of London theatre are amazed when they take their work to the country and find that nobody cares. I hate that - it's disrespectful. You can't just say, we hate that audience, so we're going to really shock 'em."

His approach is to concentrate on the quality of the acting and the clarity of language and story. The challenge is to appeal to the broadest audience without reaching for a lowest common denominator. Big-name actors help in this, and Unwin has a taste for these (Timothy West and his son Sam are playing Falstaff and Hal respectively in Unwin's forthcoming production of both parts of Henry IV) as well as for hot new talent (Alexandra Gilbreath is Hedda Gabler in his next show).

But he is also against the idea that classic plays must be made contemporary in order to be understood. "Classic plays are very profound and beautifully written, but to claim that they are new and relevant to today is intellectually fraudulent." This affects his approach to the classics, but also means that ETT's door to new writing remains open. "There is a curious connection between the notion that the classics are totally contemporary and the one that asks why we don't have any good new writers," muses Unwin. "We have lots of good new writers, but why should they try to write King Lear?" Significantly, the results of this way of thinking seem to go down as well in London as they do in Crewe.

n 'Macbeth' at Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 (0181-741 8701) from 11 Jan; 'Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club', Criterion, London W1 (0171-369 1747)

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