The man who would be king

Jonathan Kent wants to talk Brecht, but knows he has to talk to David Benedict about who will take over at the National.
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Of all the credentials you need to run the National Theatre, playing Cleopatra in Rome for the first time since Eleanora Duse at the turn of the century is not one of them. When he was an actor at the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre in the early Seventies, the director Jonathan Kent did just that. Until now, his name has been absent from the list of candidates to succeed Richard Eyre, but with the success of his production of Corneille's Le Cid at the Cottesloe and David Hare's version of Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children about to open at the Olivier (marking Dame Diana Rigg's return to the National), insiders are waking up to the fact that Kent may well succeed to the throne.

At the end of a day's rehearsals for Mother Courage, he is tired and relaxed. In contrast to the charm offensive that some directors use, he exudes polite diffidence offset by a clarity that shines through when he grows excited. He talks passionately about wanting to banish "all that Brechtian paraphernalia" and his complete lack of interest in the idea of "well-bred, well-paid actors at the National Theatre lecturing the audience on the perils of the bourgeoisie". This is the third time he has worked with Rigg, and he happily tells self-deprecating tales of nervously ringing her up in 1991 to ask her to play Cleopatra in All for Love. It was only the second play he had directed. "I wrote out these notes and bits of research all around the telephone so I could ring and be incredibly persuasive - she didn't know me from Adam - and I rang and said, 'This is Jonathan Kent and could I speak to Diana?' and she simply said, 'You're on,' and I couldn't think of a thing to say."

He is similarly nonplussed when asked about the National leadership challenge. There's a long pause and then he sighs. "I know the question is inevitable, but I really don't know. At the moment, I love running the Almeida theatre. It's an evasive answer, but it's absolutely true." This isn't Heseltine- style, "Oh, I couldn't possibly" chicanery: Kent is clearly troubled by the whole issue, but he does finally come clean. "I think it would be silly to pretend that Ian and I wouldn't run it."

So it's a joint ticket with Ian McDiarmid, his fellow artistic director at the Almeida? "Yes, I am sure he... well, I don't know... Look, I know this sounds insincere, but Ian and I run the Almeida and we're perfectly happy there. We've been doing it for six years and it takes all our energy, and I've never really talked to him about the National. I dunno. I can imagine all sorts of other people running the National extremely well."

Whoever they are, they will need a wealth of skills and experience. With its international profile, three auditoria, touring programme, education department with a producing arm, new writing studio and staff of 700, it is a massive undertaking. There are currently 10 plays in the National's repertoire, plus West End and Broadway transfers and a world tour of An Inspector Calls. When Sir Peter Hall left in 1988, Richard Eyre's experience as an associate director of the National made him the perfect candidate for the hottest job in British theatre. Eyre's reign, alongside the low- profile but crucial figure of executive director Genista McIntosh, is widely considered to have been an enormous success, but one of the criticisms levelled against him is that he hasn't groomed a successor.

Whatever Kent actually feels about the job, he is definitely not about to list the form of the other runners. The race card is very short, and several of the oft-quoted favourites would rule themselves out. Nicholas Hytner is concentrating on films, while Deborah Warner displays little relish for the administrative side of the job, nor for its public face. Cheek by Jowl's Declan Donnellan is considered to be more interested in his company and freelance projects and Ian McKellen, quite unprompted, announced in an interview about Richard III last month on these pages that he had precisely no time for or interest in the job. Adrian Noble is out of the race having renewed his contract at the RSC, which leaves Jude Kelly, Sam Mendes and Stephen Daldry.

Kelly has been widely tipped in the past and is rumoured to be extremely keen. Her gender might give her an edge were the National's management male-dominated; however, the executive director, the general manager and the heads of finance, personnel, education, publications, casting and the Studio are all women. Her artistic directorship of the West Yorkshire Playhouse gives her relevant experience, but her productions have been receiving mixed reviews of late, and her new-writing policy is sometimes criticised as more ambitious than successful. Significantly, she has not been invited to direct at the National.

Aside from dark horses like Ruth McKenzie, the strikingly smart executive director of the blooming Nottingham Playhouse (who has said that she wants to work in Europe), Mendes and Daldry remainKent's strongest rivals for the job.

Both in their thirties, they have strings of award-winning hits, successful directorships of buildings and considerable public profiles. There are rumours that the Donmar sponsorship crisis has been averted, which, if true, might tie Mendes to the building, while Daldry has an attachment to the multi-million pound redevelopment of the Royal Court. Anyone taking on the job in the autumn of 1997 would need to spend all their time there until at least the year 2000. After sticking to the Court for so long, would Daldry really not want to take up his almost indecent number of offers for freelance work which currently stretch all the way to Hollywood?

Kent and McDiarmid have put the Almeida firmly on the cultural map, an achievement of which they are justifiably proud. Within four years, the 300-seater theatre in Islington, north London won the Olivier/ Kenneth Tynan Award for Outstanding Achievement. They have produced and/ or directed neglected classics and scored some notable successes with new writing, despite having no commissioning money. From the word go, they exhibited a flair for drumming up sponsorship and an ability to pull in big names: it was Kent who took Ralph Fiennes's Hamlet to the Hackney Empire and later New York, where the actor picked up a Tony award - as Diana Rigg did with Kent's production of Medea. As Rigg herself says: "He took two classical plays to Broadway and made them the hottest tickets in town, and both leading players won the top awards. Jonathan wasn't even nominated. There's a lack of perception about directing. As an actor, you don't work independently. He genuinely believes in collaboration."

It's a comment that chimes uncannily with one made by Phyllis Nagy, whose play Butterfly Kiss was premiered at the Almeida: "He's a very savvy reader of plays, and a good matchmaker for them" - which just so happen to be the two basic requirements for the National job.

At the beginning of the Brecht previews, Kent hits technical problems. The set trucks won't move. Running his hands despairingly through his permanently tousled hair, he casts his eyes heavenwards. "This show is huge. It's a musical," he groans. Indeed, there is an entire score by another long-time collaborator, Jonathan Dove, and, years ago, Brecht said he wanted Ethel Merman to play the role. These could be prophetic words. After all, Richard Eyre made his mark at the National with Guys and Dolls.

n 'Mother Courage and her Children' is in preview at the Olivier, London SE1. Booking: 0171-928 2252