The knight of a thousand stars

Olivier did it. Garrick did it. And now Jacobi's doing it. But do actors make good managers? Georgina Brown puts the question to Sir Derek, Chichester Festival Theatre's new artistic director, and his minder, the West End producer Duncan Weldon
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The Independent Culture
Chichester Festival Theatre's image problem is deftly caught by Noel Annan in his book Our Age. In it he recalls Alan Bennett's bitching description of Mrs Thatcher as "a typical lover of opera, a genre which absolves you of thinking" and - the most subtle of insults - "a typical Chichester Festival Theatre attender". (How deliciously Bennett strikes three targets with one arrow.) "Ooh, ooh dear," flinches Sir Derek Jacobi, cast this year as artistic director, when it whistles past him. "I can see what Alan Bennett means - he's saying that it's cosy and unoriginal and not courageous or brave in what it does. But I think it's a rather cheap remark. It's too easy to make. This theatre has to please its public because it has no money."

Jacobi is right. Michael Rudman, an idealistic and inspired former artistic director, refused to take his cue from Chichester's Thatcher-style "Grey Power" and presented cutting-edge stuff, a musical version of Ionesco's Rhinoceros for instance, unenhanced by the presence of a star. They stayed away in their droves, leaving the theatre out of pocket to the tune of £750,000. This season sees the beginning of a new creative strategy: the teaming of Jacobi with the wily West End producer Duncan Weldon, who is now director of the theatre.

Theatres have often been run by actor-managers, and rumours abound that Sir Ian McKellen will take over from Richard Eyre at the National. At Chichester, however, the obvious dangers of having an artist run a financially risky building are minimised by the presence of the commercially- minded Weldon.

"Under Rudman they would have done a quality classic like The Miser with Fred Smith if Fred was a good actor," says Weldon. "I've got to do it with Ian Richardson because the only way it will work here is with a big telly name who, as you and I know, is also one of the great actors of the British theatre and who has been away from the stage for much too long."

In fact Chichester's excuse for playing safe is unusually good. Unlike any other provincial producing playhouse, but like all the commercial West End theatres, the box-office determines whether it lives or dies. (The National, by contrast, receives an annual subsidy of £12m.) This dashing, hexagonal 1,400-seater with a vast intractable stage is set in the middle of a park in a little Sussex town. It was built more than 40 years ago by a local businessman, Leslie Evershed-Martin, and got off to a glorious start as a precursor of the National Theatre with Laurence Olivier at the helm, staging a summer season of three productions starring the likes of Michael Redgrave, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Albert Finney, Robert Stephens and youngsters such as Frank Finlay and Derek Jacobi.

This year, armed with Olivier's title, Jacobi is determined to put Chichester back on the theatrical map, "to make it the sort of place that it was when I was here, nearer the centre of what was going on in theatre". It wasn't his initiative. Indeed, the thought didn't occur to him until Duncan Weldon asked him to help get a summer season together of 10 plays to run for 26 weeks. "I was interested, then suddenly I was in and had to get used to it," he says. "For 24 hours I panicked. Jesus Christ, I thought, I know about acting, putting the frock on, learning the lines and getting out there, but I haven't done this before. I grew up rather quickly."

Some may see the appointment of Sir Derek as simply a crowd-pleasing figure-head. He himself admits to being "a kind of PR man really". Unlike Sir Larry, he's never been an actor-manager and whether he can offer something more than glamour and great acting in leading roles remains to be seen. Companies are what he knows most about from years spent with the Birmingham Rep, Prospect, the RSC, Renaissance and, not surprisingly, his dream is to create one big happy company which would involve actors in several shows. Which may, or may not, fit in with Duncan Weldon's plans.

Weldon's talent is for packaging. He matches a name with a show and an audience. So far it seems that Weldon wears the trousers in this particular partnership, at least as far as programming is concerned. Jacobi had wanted to do Uncle Vanya in the main house, "but there's a plethora of Vanyas at the moment and everyone told me to do Hadrian VII, which has turned out to be a marvellous part". Weldon's imprint is evident in this year's impressive line-up - typical Chichester fayre given a super-starry top- spin. In the main-house, following Jacobi in Hadrian VII (a big hit for Alec McCowen in the Seventies), there's Hobson's Choice with a rare stage sighting of Leo McKern; The Miser with Ian Richardson; The Visit with Lauren Bacall, a huge name to temper a more challenging piece. In the 300-seat Minerva is Taking Sides, the new Ronald Harwood directed by Pinter; Ayckbourn's latest A Word From Our Sponsor; Jacobi in a newish piece about Strindberg's wife; Harold Pinter in his own play The Hothouse; Penelope Keith in a French comedy. Weldon expects the Minerva to make a profit for the first time.

He doesn't always get it right, however, and he's been a bit unlucky lately what with Raquel Welch in The Millionairess being prematurely savaged (not that it stopped him from selling out to the tabloid audience) and Stephen Fry's unscripted exit from Cell Mates (which closed a show that he believed would be a cast-iron success for a 13-week season), but he's pretty chuffed about this season. While it's tempting to view it as a risk-free opportunity for him to try things out pre-London, he swears that even the coups of Richardson, McKern and Bacall did not spring from self-interest. "I'm here to serve this theatre. My job as a West End producer is secondary," Weldon insists, "but if something turns out to be also good for somewhere else, that's a plus for everyone."

As a regular producer of a Chichester Festival show over the last 30 years, Weldon has been in a good position to monitor its ups and downs. The four years led by Olivier, followed by eight years with another actor- manager, John Clements, were, he says, years of greatness. "Having lost two very inspired men it had to find its own level and that level wasn't as exciting and adventurous. It was partly because the National and the RSC were beginning to offer competition not only to the West End but for the ever-lengthening season here."

The local audience remained steadfast through thick and thin. Weldon's problem is that they are dying, literally. "We have to look to the future but we don't want to risk losing the older ones. We'll try and bring in a younger audience through the Minerva Theatre. I'd like to educate the audience down here to appreciate a more experimental and exciting form of theatre, but I know damn well it shouldn't be done in one season."

Audience confidence so far can be measured in cash. In a four-week priority booking period, members of the Supporters' Club have spent £1.25m on tickets. This advance represents a third of the total take and is more than the RSC in Stratford would ever get. Weldon has bigger ambitions, however. He wants to embarrass the Arts Council into coughing up financial support to enable the theatre to produce all year round. Together, Weldon andJacobi form an extraordinary partnership, a forceful double-act that the National Theatre will doubtless be watching. The National might be just an Eyre's breadth away.

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