THEATRE / Coming back from the dead: Omma, The Night Of The Long Knives : It looked like curtains for Tim Supple's Young Vic career, yet Clare Bayley finds him bloodied but unbowed . . .

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The Independent Culture
We threw everything up in the air, and now we can see what the problems are,' says the resilient artistic director of the Young Vic, Tim Supple. His and co-director Julia Bardsley's ambitious but miscalculated first year was fraught with controversy and culminated in Bardsley's resignation. Supple, however, soldiered on and his first solo season begins this week with John Byrne's rip-roaringly naturalistic Glasgow trilogy, The Slab Boys. The choice demonstrates an abrupt about-turn, an apparent indication that Supple has reneged on all of his original bold ideals. But has he?

Supple and Bardsley took control of the theatre with a fistful of radical ideals. They were going to redefine the notion of youth theatre from being the place your teachers take you to, to somewhere you sneak off to against your parents' wishes. The building was going to be a hotbed of interdisciplinary collaboration and experiment. Bardsley and Supple rejected the notion of theatre as product, refusing to apply the methods of industry to drama.

Their first production, a revival of Bardsley's adaptation of Zola's Therese Raquin, acclaimed in Leicester, was not a complete gamble, but nor was it safe. Even the programme was unorthodox, containing a swatch of velvet (Therese worked in a haberdashery) and a surgical rubber glove (Zola likened the naturalist writer's craft to the methods of surgeons).

The critics were almost unanimously hostile, letting fly accusations of didacticism, showy theatrics, pretentiousness, selfindulgence and modishness. Many mentioned the programme, bridling at the contemporary vision Bardsley seemed to be forcing on to the piece. Doubt was immediately expressed over Supple and Bardsley's suitability to run a theatre whose populist principles had been handed down from Frank Dunlop to David Thacker.

The next venture, Supple's production of Kenneth McLeish's Omma: Oedipus and the Luck of Thebes, was even more dogged by disaster. The cast walked out four weeks into rehearsal, resistant to Supple's experimental way of working without psychological characterisation. A new cast was found; the critics laid in; audiences stayed away in their droves.

'It's a question of populism versus popularity,' admits Supple now. 'People's interpretation of this as a young people's theatre has been overwhelmingly populist. That's not the direction we wanted to go in. But the other part of the dilemma cannot be ignored. Now my job is to build a bridge between artistic ambitions and the fact that this is a 500-seat theatre, and we've got to fill it.'

By the time of Julia Bardsley's deconstruction of Hamlet (entitled Hamlet?), public confidence seems to have been lost. 'What you get is not Hamlet as theatre, but Hamlet as circus,' said one critic, an objection supported by the appearance of Bardsley cradling a white rabbit which was just about to be produced from a magician's hat for the matinee of Hamlet? as she voiced her reasons for leaving.

'The cultural climate is so cynical and fearful,' she said. 'Pedestrian, ploddy stuff gets supported, but if you're trying to effect an audience you are vilified. I don't understand what this fear is - that performance art is taking over the traditional theatre? I thought we could carve out a niche for ourselves.

'We've been genuinely shocked by the level of animosity from all sides. We were asked to come and do our work, and we never pretended we were going to do anything different,' she said.

Bardsley made a name for herself with ground-breaking theatre work in partnership with Phelim McDermott, and assisting Richard Jones at the Old Vic. At Leicester Haymarket, Paul Kerryson's populist work in the main house paid for Bardsley's experimental projects in the Studio. Supple worked at the National Theatre touring a successful Accidental Death of an Anarchist with Alan Cumming.

Soon after they arrived at the Young Vic, they were accused of failing to balance the books, and a row broke out over redundancies they were making. 'The building got into financial difficulty the moment it put on shows, because of the administration costs,' says Supple. 'If we had just kept the building open with no productions, we could have broken even.' Bardsley was accused of wasting money on her 'cripplingly expensive' production of Hamlet?, even though she cut the usual production budget of pounds 22,500 down to pounds 15,000.

'At the end of the day, you've got to make it pay. We know that. We painfully know that,' says Supple. The number of full-time staff has now been reduced from 30 to 22. One significant appointment he has made is Caroline Maude, formerly of the Gate Theatre, who is now his administrative producer, and will allow Supple time to concentrate on artistic concerns.

The final obstacle remains the public perception of what young people's theatre is. If Supple was going to do avant-garde work, then why choose Shakespeare and Greek tragedy? But if he was going to do classics, why do them in such an oblique way? 'Inevitably the theatre we do here will look different to what's gone before because this is a different decade and a different generation.' The Lambeth Youth Theatre is in residence, but the main programming in the theatre will be of a different nature. The radicalism has been toned down. It's been a hard lesson for Supple, but one which he is facing buoyantly.

'Slab Boys will hopefully draw a robust, younger, popular audience. The ultimate objective is to have an audience made up of three kinds of people: students and schoolchildren, young independent theatre-goers and an older, more adventurous theatre-goer. It has to house some aspect of the avant-garde, but we need time to build our confidence and certainty, to have a strong enough reputation to survive, which may take us four or five years,' he declares.

Supple's definition of theatre which appeals to the youth of the Nineties is eclectic, encompassing 'work of young subjects or of a young energy'. This could range from Clockwork Orange, to Tamburlane (written when Marlowe was only 23) to Wedekind's Spring's Awakening (about adolescent sexuality). This season sees a version of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (directed by Supple), followed by Mark Rylance's adaptation of Shakespeare's early poem, Venus and Adonis. 'The Young Vic is the only theatre that is funded for young people,' explains Supple. 'I humbly believe we should follow a different path to what is expected of us, rather than conform to the notion of theatre that is 'good for you'.'

'There's bad news at the Young Vic, where Omma turns out to be the third flop in a row for the dire (and surely doomed) new artistic directorship of Supple and Bardsley.

'Kenneth McLeish has come up with his own version of the Theban legend based on bleeding (and often pretentiously translated) chunks of Sophocles and Aeschylus. This arrogance is breathtaking in itself but Supple's miminal production seems deliberately calculated to turn young people off Greek drama for life.

'Four black-suited actors recite the piece into microphones accompanied by the kind of ghastly plinkety-plonk Radio 3 music that has ensured the success of Classic FM. There is scarcely any action, virtually no emotion in a show that looks like a rehearsal for a radio recording. The original cast walked out after several weeks of rehearsal and one can only salute their good sense. It requires real ingenuity to make the Oedipus story dull, but Supple and co have somehow managed it.'

Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph

'What does the new regime at the Young Vic think it is playing to? On the basis of this reworking of the Oedipus and Antigone myths, only those who are clasping PhDs in their hot hands. Tim Supple's production makes enormous demands and is far more suited to the National Theatre Studio than this populist theatre.'

Jane Edwards, Time Out

'Tim Supple's Omma strikes me as less a piece of psychoanalysis and more a cry for help. Fresh heights of theatrical perversity are triumphantly scaled.'

Nicholas de Jongh, Evening Standard

'As staged in the round at the Vic (Omma), by . . . Tim Supple, it is nothing short of a disaster, bringing us none of the original drama . . . The Young Vic would seem to be in real trouble with its new management, but simply to abandon all theatrical principles and convert to a radio studio would not to me appear high among its options or objectives.' Sheridan Morley, Herald Tribune

(Photograph omitted)

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