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."

Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal