It was meant to be the moment when the Royal Shakespeare Company came into its own, striking out towards the uncharted frontier of the West End stage.
But barely nine months after announcing plans to quit its long-time winter base at London's Barbican after 20 years, the company has been forced to return on bended knee to ask for its old venue back.
In the face of mounting indifference from commercial theatre owners towards RSC productions, artistic director Adrian Noble is asking the Barbican for an annual season of up to 16 weeks – more than half the length of time it currently spends there.
His attempt to negotiate what amounts to a partial U-turn over his grand vision of reaching out to wider audiences is taking place against a backdrop of increasingly icy relations with Barbican managers. The world-renowned arts centre is already demanding a one-off £1.7m payment in lieu of the RSC's outstanding lease on its theatres, which does not expire until 2007. The parties are also in dispute over the future of 35 technical staff employed by the RSC to maintain the venue throughout the year.
Now critics say the RSC, which is due to close its offices at the Barbican in May, is desperately trying to claw back some security in the face of obstacles to its West End ambitions. The company maintains that it is in advanced talks with several commercial venues.
News of the latest hitch in Mr Noble's masterplan for the RSC ironically comes just days after his controversial proposal to demolish the historic Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford and replace it with a £20m "theatre village" was approved by MPs. The Commons culture committee branded the Grade II* listed 1930s building a "carbuncle" after an impassioned defence of the company's proposals by the actress Sinead Cusack.
Despite this, RSC directors have so far managed to commit only one London venue to support their new master plan, The Roundhouse, a disused railway building in north London. Without the Barbican, they have only four months left to find suitable homes for two of this year's most eagerly awaited plays, Antony and Cleopatra, starring Cusack, and Much Ado About Nothing, featuring Harriet Walter.
One industry insider said: "The RSC is starting to realise that the West End is not the golden opportunity it had expected it to be."
Willy Donaghy, spokesman for Bectu, the union representing RSC technical staff, said the cost of the West End plan had not been thought through. Regardless of the prestige of staging an RSC play, hard-nosed theatres on Shaftesbury Avenue would demand big-name stars and high commercial rents before allowing their venues to be used.
"The company could end up paying exorbitant rents to theatre owners, but without the £1.5m subsidy it receives from the City of London for running the Barbican," he said. "My concern is that the whole company could go down the tube because of this misguided vision that Adrian has. That's got to be a possibility."
If the RSC's plan to find "the venue to suit the play" is to work it must be confident of being able to book spaces in the city often at very short notice. But Mr Donaghy said that, however much the company was prepared to pay, it could find it hard to secure appropriate venues precisely when it needed them in the face of competition from guaranteed money-spinners like musicals.
"When the RSC decided a few years ago that it was going to leave the Barbican for six months a year to take up residencies in other cities, they couldn't get the venues committed and in the end only Plymouth worked," he said. "They hadn't thought it through properly. They were too expensive, and nobody could afford them."
While securing a more flexible presence in London is the RSC's key priority, there are other thorny aspects to its negotiations.
When the 40-year-old company moves out of the Barbican, theoretically it will be making some 80 technical staff redundant. But the RSC argues that the venue is obliged to re-employ at least 35 of them under TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings in Public Employment) legislation, and is threatening to take the issue to the High Court unless it accepts this.
An RSC spokesman said the company had always intended to return to the Barbican for regular seasons, and denied it was backtracking in the face of obstacles to its efforts to find new London venues. He said: "We are not babes in the wood."
A Barbican spokeswoman declined to comment on the current negotiations.