Helming the RSC is a tough assignment, to put it mildly. You run out of decent Shakespeare very fast, which means reimagining the same plays about every four or five years. If you don't have a really inspired production team led by a director who really has something worthwhile to say about, for example, The Winter's Tale, then you end up with what feels like "Oh God, its 1998: time for Twelfth Night again".
The truth is that there are frighteningly few consistently good directors in this country. Directing is an extraordinarily difficult job to pull off, a juggling act between psychoanalysis and architecture, requiring often seemingly contradictory skills of being able to listen and command, encourage and control. It's a peculiar act of both detachment and engagement. Of all the directors in the country, I reckon only about 12 pull it off regularly. The rest are only good at staging (part, but most definitely not all of the job), or work well with actors but cannot fashion a text to save their lives. Others still just rely on their good taste in plays or the fact that the actors will cover up directorial mistakes. Only when the RSC encourages enough great directing talent will its Shakespearean fortunes turn around.
Their other problem is not of their making. We have plenty of good actors, but good actors willing to leave home to live and work in Stratford on a less-than-staggering wage are few and far between. Once upon a time, people played in the RSC for years. Young actors went there to learn while more experienced ones stayed to work through a whole range of roles. It was a career choice: actors wanted to be asked back to revel in the company spirit, but economics have changed all of that. Why join a company when you can stay at home and make more money with highly-paid film or commercials, voice-overs, the ubiquitous corporate videos and training films or the odd bit of telly work?
The problem is particularly acute with men. There are far more career possibilities for men within the profession - and thus more money to be made - so fewer and fewer are willing to make long-term commitments. (Even the National Theatre couldn't find a male lead to play opposite Fiona Shaw in Deborah Warner's proposed production of Private Lives).
Shorter contracts tailored to fewer plays seems to be an answer. Katie Michell's new production of Uncle Vanya has attracted such class acts as Stephen Dillane (above), Linus Roache and Malcolm Sinclair, none of whom is a stranger to film and TV. They're only doing it for three months and the run is in London. Don't wait for the reviews to come out. With that director, that cast and that play, what's stopping you from picking up the phone this minute?
'Uncle Vanya' previews at the Young Vic, The Cut, SE1 (0171-928 6363) from WedReuse content