Much ado on the South Bank

Mounting debts, cancelled productions, charges of artistic incompetence - what is going on at the nation's leading repertory company?
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No, no!" said the Queen. "Sentence first - verdict afterwards." The Royal National Theatre, which has already cancelled a performance of Romeo and Juliet and no fewer than five performances of Peer Gynt, has now cancelled its Christmas production of Alice in Wonderland. The mighty South Bank institution, which for so many years Sir Laurence Olivier strove to establish as the world's finest repertory company, appears to be in deep trouble, and the critics are queuing up to pronounce sentence.

No, no!" said the Queen. "Sentence first - verdict afterwards." The Royal National Theatre, which has already cancelled a performance of Romeo and Juliet and no fewer than five performances of Peer Gynt, has now cancelled its Christmas production of Alice in Wonderland. The mighty South Bank institution, which for so many years Sir Laurence Olivier strove to establish as the world's finest repertory company, appears to be in deep trouble, and the critics are queuing up to pronounce sentence.

The present rumpus started when the press night of Romeo and Juliet in the Olivier - featuring the NT's new ensemble, directed by Tim Supple - was suddenly postponed from 29 September to 3 October. Rumours broke about strained backstage relationships and it was startlingly reported that Supple had "stepped aside", leaving Trevor Nunn (artistic director for the past three years) to "take over" rehearsals.

On top of that, the company's production of Ibsen's Peer Gynt - also in the 1,160-seat Olivier - is running nearly three weeks late. Five preview performances have been cancelled. And, to cap it all, a forthcoming version of J M Synge's masterpiece, The Playboy of the Western World, has been postponed. Its Irish director, Conall Morrison - also responsible for Peer Gynt - is thought to be ill.

Curiouser and curiouser. Once, all this might have been dismissed as a series of blips. The removal of sets for Alan Ayckbourn's outgoing plays, House and Garden, for example, has taken longer than planned, making it difficult to furnish new productions. But the danger is that the blips could coalesce and stretch into a flat line.

Uncertainty has always attended the National. It took 128 years before it even got off the ground. Sir Henry Irving, Charles Dickens and Matthew Arnold first called for a national theatre in 1848, prompted by the London publisher Effingham Wilson. By 1952 Kenneth Tynan was staging a mock-funeral beside the foundation stone, bewailing their lost dream.

Yet Tynan's gloom proved premature, for Denys Lasdun's concrete edifice did finally open for business in 1976. And, as if to prove that disarray is no stranger to organised theatre, there were repeated industrial disputes in the years that followed, which stymied several productions.

More specifically, in the annals of troublesome sets, one might recall that in 1982 the onstage river required for Way Upstream - also, ominously, by Ayckbourn - burst its banks and flooded the Lyttelton, making a splash that closed the show.

Directorial walk-outs have happened before as well. Nearly 25 years ago, a nasty furore was weathered when Sir Peter Hall's associate directors, Jonathan Miller and Michael Blakemore, stormed off, the latter vociferously condemning Hall's leadership.

Tim Supple, by contrast, has bowed out quietly. Speculation that he had been deemed artistically incompetent were dismissed by Nunn in a hastily issued statement in which Sir Trevor insisted he had helped out in the final stages only because the reshuffled rehearsals clashed with Supple's remounting of A Servant of Two Masters for the RSC.

On press night, Romeo and Juliet - though hardly dazzling - was not the disaster some luvvies proclaimed it. Yet the fact that critics were underwhelmed only added to the growing conviction that Nunn had been forced to step in and rescue a sorely confused production.

Some would go further and suggest that it is Nunn's choice of directors that is at fault. Supple's previous production, The Villains' Opera, turned a sawn-off shotgun on itself in the spring. Now it sounds as if Morrison is buckling under the pressure of Peer Gynt, taking sick leave in the middle of rehearsals. Frustrated fans look back to Richard Eyre's reign (1988-97) as a comparatively golden era that nurtured the talents of Nicholas Hytner, Sean Mathias, Declan Donnellan and others.

What Nunn's critics specifically bemoan is that the current selection of plays on offer at the National is unadventurous and, all too often, out of keeping with the theatre's remit. The recent revival of Michael Frayn's 1980s farce, Noises Off, is said to be a case in point. It is cleverly constructed, but scarcely "classic" drama. It might also be said that, with Shakespeare's Globe - just down-river of the NT - and the RSC both in fine fettle, the production list might usefully include dramas more recherché than Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet.

But there is another view. Nunn's programming has been more varied overall than he is given credit for - with Patrick Marber's acclaimed Closer drawing a young crowd, Frayn's fearlessly intellectual Copenhagen and Edward Bulwer-Lytton's obscure Victorian delight, Money. Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall was a recent success on the "New Writing" front. Oklahoma!, which drew appreciative hordes and helped replenish the NT's coffers, was followed by the more challenging musical Candide. And one shouldn't forget, last September, Maxim Gorky's rarely aired Summerfolk - an exquisite, fascinating alternative to Chekhov.

No institution can be the prisoner of its founder. On that basis, the Betty Trask literary award would go every year to Mills & Boon. Yet there must, logically, be consistency, and Nunn's claim is that he provides it.

Effingham Wilson's historic objectives for the National Theatre were not laid down on tablets of stone, but were firmly understood just the same. They were: "popularising good drama, especially Shakespeare, and educating the public through the standardisation of the best". Joining this holy mission in the early 1900s, Harley Granville Barker and the reviewer William Archer added that such a national establishment must not feel snobbish but rather make a "large appeal to the whole community". An agenda was further set down in 1908 to keep the Bard's plays in rep and revive "whatever else is vital in English classical drama"; to "prevent recent plays of great merit from falling into oblivion"; to produce new plays and "further the development of modern drama" as well as staging translations of foreign dramas and stimulating the art of acting.

It is a tall order. Yet, over the past quarter of a century, the National has largely fulfilled its remit, even if the Royal Court has provided more of a cutting edge in respect of new writing, and allowing for the fact that the standard NT audience member is white, middle class and middle aged.

No other theatre offers the National's breadth and scale of programming. Architecturally, Lasdun's carpeted car-park of a building has never felt exclusive or posh. Actively broadening its audience base, Nunn's company tours the regions, offers "cheap ticket" nights and seeks out non-theatregoers in trade unions and local community associations. It sends out youth-oriented productions via its education department, and it has recently established a feedback scheme with young people. Black audiences may be drawn by Romeo and Juliet too, with Chiwetel Ejiofor, from Nigeria, playing the romantic hero.

The question is, when does going out into the world become a walk in the park? Accused of unchallenging populism ever since his fling with commercial blockbuster musicals, Nunn seems these days to be playing desperately safe, with some of the most well-thumbed plays in the canon (his Cottesloe production being Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard). His theatrical menu looks alarmingly like "top 10" theatre. Serious devotees of drama want more surprises.

The new writing selected by Nunn has been hit and miss as well. Last October, Stephen Poliakoff's Remember This was unspeakable. Nick Stafford's Battle Royal, depicting the bad marriage of George IV, was no match for Alan Bennett's previous NT hit, The Madness of George III. And this May, The Waiting Room by Tanika Gupta, although commendably bringing in Asian audiences, was dramatically lifeless.

What is really worrying is that Nunn's problems come down, at root, to money. Lew Hodges, the finance director, left his post in June amid what sounded like less than friendly adieux.

Forthcoming statistics will show that the theatre's accumulated deficit for 1999-2000 was £164,000. The key point is that, in spite of a small overall profit, the theatre's reserve funds, hitherto used to cover annual deficits (in Eyre's time as well as Nunn's), have run dry. No natural administrator, Nunn will clearly have to work harder at keeping his house in order.

Perhaps we should count our blessings. Nunn is an extremely good stage director. The scrupulously crafted naturalism of his Cherry Orchard is in the front rank. His first NT ensemble in 1999 was electrifying, with Victoria Hamilton and Henry Goodman starring alongside Simon Russell Beale, Roger Allam and others. The list of trophies won that year (Olivier, Tony, Evening Standard and Critics' Circle Awards included) goes on for ever. Though this season's company doesn't look so stunning, Russell Beale and Allam have stuck around and Nunn has attracted other major-league players, Vanessa Redgrave among them. He's pulling in the punters, too. When one rings the box office and is greeted by a recorded message announcing that Hamlet, All My Sons and The Cherry Orchard are already sold out, the image is of Nunn in his office, humming merrily and chortling: "Crisis? What crisis?"