No ovations for Oxford's luvvies

Students are unhappy with Cameron Mackintosh's pounds 1.5m drama profes sorship. By Matthew Sweet
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It was meant to give them the chance to learn from the expertise of leading theatre professionals but, eight years on, Oxford University students are claiming that the Cameron Mackintosh Professorship of Contemporary Drama is failing the majority of undergraduates.

Some of the celebrated actors, directors and playwrights who have held the glamorous post, say the students, have been remote figures with little real contact with the student body, and furthermore, the post has never been held by a woman.

Their discontent will be thrown into sharp relief next week when, after the inaugural lecture of the new professor, Sir Richard Eyre, artistic director of the Royal National Theatre, and two female theatrical heavyweights, Janet Suzman and Juliet Stevenson, arrive in Oxford to share their experience with undergraduates.

With much razzmatazz, the multimillionaire impresario Sir Cameron endowed the professorship in 1989 to the tune of about pounds 1.5m. The American lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim was the first incumbent, but he mystified students by conducting drama workshops which used professionals brought in from outside Oxford, rather than university members. Other professors, notably Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Alan Ayckbourn, have played a more active part, running long courses of workshops and classes. But recent professors, such as Arthur Miller, have spent relatively little time in Oxford during their tenures.

Although the professorship comes with the use of a house in central Oxford, the post has no residential requirement, so time spent at the university has varied wildly from professor to professor. As the university runs no drama course, any lectures or classes the professor gives are the nearest Oxford students get to practical drama education.

Denise O'Kelly, a tutor in Oxford's English faculty, argues that "more should be done to facilitate the flow of information and to make professors more accessible. It's unfortunate - when Cameron Mackintosh has been so generous with his money - that the professors are kept at such a distance from students."

Students complain that professors are often difficult to contact via their official address at St Catherine's College. One graduate student writing an MA thesis on the work of the 1994 professor, Peter Shaffer, found that the playwright had received none of her letters or messages.

Lord Plant, Master of St Catherine's, said that the professorship added "an exciting element to college life. It's provided a great deal of interest that we wouldn't otherwise have had."

The day-to-day running of these events is overseen by George Peck, principal of the Oxford School of Drama, an institution with no formal affiliation to the university. Mr Peck asserts that the international calibre of Mackintosh professors is compensation for their perceived remoteness. "These people are very busy and involved in their own careers and the idea of them sitting in Oxford for a term, waiting to see undergraduates, is not why the professorship was set up."

Critics of the Mackintosh scheme are also frustrated that after eight years of appointments, the prestigious post has never been awarded to a woman. One aggrieved student described the gender imbalance as "shameful, when women are such a powerful force in British theatre". Ironically, most of the theatrical talent Oxford has recently produced is female - up-and-coming stars such as Emily Mortimer, Kate Beckinsale and Emily Woof are all tackling major roles in theatre, film and television.

The week following Sir Richard's inaugural lecture this Friday (cryptically entitled Michelangelo's Snowman), Janet Suzman and Juliet Stevenson will star in a discussion chaired by Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington.

The visit is part of a series of talks organised by actor-director turned St John's College doctoral student Robert Clare, who, with minimal funding and none of the fanfare that attends the Mackintosh-sponsored events, has persuaded luminaries such as Sir Peter Hall and John Barton to come and answer students' questions. Although not intended to rival the events surrounding the professorship, Ms Suzman and Ms Stevenson's visit will be welcomed by students unhappy with the post's all-male roll-call.

Ms Suzman, best known for her interpretations of Shakespeare's heroines, is impressed by Sir Richard's appointment, believing that the Mackintosh professorship "has the potential to develop into a huge focal point for students interested in drama". She is less enthusiastic about the persistent failure to elect a female professor. "It's high time that they gave the job to a woman," she says.

"There are so many brilliant contenders, people such as Deborah Warner and Thelma Holt. Perhaps Oxford is still too male-oriented." Ms Suzman is sure that there is a glass ceiling which excludes women from some of theatre's top jobs. "It's hard to pinpoint and doesn't manifest itself in any obvious way, but it's an unconscious residue of a certain way of thinking and getting rid of it will be a long process. The trouble is, it's invisible and subtle - you can't point a quivering finger at it and a lot of men don't take it seriously."

The drama dons

1997 Sir Richard Eyre

1995-6 Lord (Richard)


1994-5 Arthur Miller

1993-4 Peter Shaffer

1992-3 Sir Alan Ayckbourn

1991-2 Michael Codron

1990-1 Sir Ian McKellen

1989-90 Stephen Sondheim