Theatre: End of the winter of discontent?

Spring for the Royal Shakespeare Company After years of damning criticism the new season has started with a critical thumbs-up. Its artistic director Adrian Noble talks exclusively to David Lister

The real dramas often take place backstage. One occurred at the Royal Shakespeare Company earlier this year. Adrian Noble, by far the most shy and reserved of the institution's four artistic directors over the past 38 years, lost his cool.

It has been a difficult three years for Noble. He has endured what he considers to be a campaign of vitriol since he took the RSC away from London for six months of the year. Productions have been accused of mediocrity, the acting company has been accused of a lack of charisma, and Britain's foremost classical company has been accused of having an unclear policy platform.

Noble suffered in silence. He gave virtually no interviews, though privately he felt bewildered at the lack of acknowledgement of his efforts to modernise the company and widen the repertoire; his plans to rebuild the main house in Britain for the benefit of audiences, actors and directors; and his success in taking the company to towns in Britain that had never seen the RSC.

Then one attack too many made even this most languid of individuals blow a fuse. A Sunday newspaper critic wrote that the company had suffered a dismal falling-off and could not attract top-class actors or directors and that there were fatal flaws in leadership. Noble wrote to him at his home address saying he was "angry and appalled", and flayed him for "unattributed tittle-tattle, inaccuracies and half-truths".

When I met Adrian Noble in his office at the Barbican for his first wide-ranging interview for a long time, he was still resentful about the criticism. However, the none-too-familiar glow of consistently good reviews for the company's opening shows brings a lustre to the "new confidence and vigour" he discerns in the company.

"I have been radical in what I have done," he said, "but I have had three years of criticism. And, yes, I do believe it is because of my decision to move the company out of London.

"The critics are against modernisation. It has been a bumpy three years. The agenda was to create new energy. I believe that was a vital task. We can now programme more flexibly and tackle issues more creatively in terms of casting, touring and repertoire.

"The fact that it created ructions internally and externally is no surprise. I did find it surprising that a lot of journalists found it difficult to address the broader agenda. I think there has been a feeding frenzy in the press at the expense of the RSC which has led to quite a number of unjust attacks on its productions and actors.

"Stephen Poliakoff says that if he does a play at the National Theatre, they write about the play. At the RSC, half of the review is about the RSC's policy. There's no question that the critics' agenda is our leaving London. But what we have done has become government policy.

"The Government is interested in quality, but also in who sees the work. I've never regretted the decision to leave London. It's opened up the repertoire."

Most importantly, not just for what it says about the repertoire but for what it says about how audiences now need to be coaxed into Shakespeare, Noble is insistent on opening up the main stage at Stratford to non-Shakespearian productions, as he did last year with The School for Scandal and the show that has had massive impact on his whole philosophy, his production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

"We did a lot of research on Lion and it attracted 80,000 newcomers. Of those, 60 per cent were youngsters. It's fantastically important to get young people into the theatre, to own it, to celebrate it. Lion has been amazingly good for the company. We hope it will broaden our audience in the long term. In the main house, we always had just Shakespeare and we rarely did anything that was just for families. From now on, every season will have something purely for the family audience."

It is, on the one hand, a depressing admission that despite the euphoria surrounding Shakespeare in Love, the real thing now needs gateway family shows to draw in new audiences. But on the other hand, if the productions are as well received as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The School for Scandal, then it could be an effective route into Shakespeare.

Should we not be absolutely honest and admit that it is becoming harder to get audiences to come to Shakespeare? Noble pauses for a long time.

"Look, Shakespeare is trickier than Blur. But it's to do with how we teach people at school. Shakespeare isn't easy stuff for young people. Of course it isn't. Theatre-going needs to be a habit and teaching needs to be as imaginative as possible."

On the latter point, he intends to lead the way. Last week, the RSC received a basketful of good notices for both Volpone and A Midsummer Night's Dream. But for Noble the most significant event of the week related to his vision of the company's educational role. He signed up Clare Venables, principal of the Brit School of Performing Arts and Technology and former director of the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, as his new head of education.

It is a high-profile appointment that affirms his new and wider remit.

Noble becomes visibly excited as he says: "We will have demonstrations, lectures and many more show-related events. I would like, as part of our rebuild, to have an education centre in Stratford. Imagine one you could spend a day in: in the morning do a voice session with Cicely Berry, see Romeo and Juliet in the afternoon, then pull down from the digital archive four versions of Romeo and Juliet. Of course, you'd do Baz Luhrmann, but you'd also listen to Peggy Ashcroft do it, then talk about it. The tip of the iceberg is the performance. At the moment we have no education centre; we hire a church hall. It's pathetic."

On stage, one of the more hurtful criticisms must have been that the standard of verse-speaking had fallen. Noble came into the job in 1991 pledged to improve verse-speaking. He acknowledges the difficulties caused by the lack of proper classical training in drama schools. But he has instigated the most intensive work on verse-speaking in the company's history - weekly three-and-a-half-hour verse-speaking workshops for the entire company. And while it is hard not to look back nostalgically just a few years to a company that included Simon Russell Beale, Robert Stephens, John Wood and Amanda Root, Noble is adamant that the new arrangements are attracting high-calibre actors again.

Some critics have detected a change in company ethos, most notably in Robert Lindsay's show-stealing tour de force as Richard III.

"I think it's unfair," says Noble. "The personalities of all the cast were complementing what Bob was doing. The summer season is the centre of our work, and that's a company that's no different from the companies we have had in Stratford for 38 years."

And what of those who disagree, arguing that at times the quality does not run right through the company, a point made in private by directors as well as critics?

"I don't know how to answer that," says Noble. "I didn't find that in the company that did The Tempest or The Merchant of Venice. I watched the run-throughs of Volpone and the actors were wonderful."

After a long and steady battering, Noble can now look with satisfaction at the statistics. Three years after "leaving" London, the RSC has in the past year been seen by more people at various London venues than it was over a similar period in its full-time Barbican days, and the new Stratford season has taken pounds 2m in bookings.

"The company is demonstrating great vigour and self-confidence," he says. And, casting himself a trifle bizarrely as a dramatic Kevin Keegan, he believes the nation will rally round.

"I don't go to football, but I support the national team. I want people to feel that same ownership of the RSC."

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