Theatre company head quits in row with Arts Council

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The Independent Online
THE HEAD of the English Shakespeare Company has resigned, accusing the Arts Council of breaking its promises over funding and attempting to exert artistic control.

Michael Pennington, the distinguished actor who was joint founder and joint artistic director of the pioneering touring company, announced his decision in an interview with the Independent, and said the future of the award-winning company was now uncertain.

He also accused the Arts Council of going back on a promise to give the company pounds 600,000 over three years and now intending to fund it project by project. He alleges that Arts Council officials demanded to know casting details in advance of productions, and on one occasion an official questioned a staging of Chekhov's The Seagull, saying it was not a very good play.

The ESC has been one of the biggest success stories in the arts since Mr Pennington formed it with Michael Bogdanov in 1986. It has toured Shakespeare and the classics around Britain selling out controversial productions at regional theatres. It has taken Shakespeare to Africa and its innovative education department recently helped inmates at Maidstone prison mount a production of The Tempest.

Last week Compass Theatre, founded by the late Sir Anthony Quayle, announced it was stopping touring after a dispute with the Arts Council.

Mr Pennington said: 'The Arts Council were against us changing our programme to include middle scale venues, 800seat theatres, in addition to the big venues, even though we have given them 15 months' notice.

'I am totally disillusioned and have taken myself off the payroll. I am resigning. To add to their U-turn over money they were also asking for casting details before confirming the grant. That amounts to the Arts Council wanting to have casting approval. It's absolutely outlandish. We have never had this sort of problem with our private sponsor, IBM, but we get it from a public body.

'It led me to ask them whether they had an approved list of actors we can employ. I had a staggering conversation with an Arts Council official about whether The Seagull was a good play. He said it was an old play and had been done before. The same is true of Shakespeare, of course. I never dreamt the intrinsic merit of the play would actually be called into question. They have also started asking for the 'production concept' in advance. Don't they understand that that develops in rehearsals?'

Ironically, the ESC's chairman is Luke Rittner, the Arts Council's former secretary-general. An Arts Council spokeswoman said: 'In 1991 we asked the ESC to submit a business plan for funding of pounds 600,000 a year for three years. However, we never received a satisfactory plan. Their status as a three-year franchise client was never confirmed.'

She said that the ESC had always been funded as a large-scale tourer as there were already a number of medium-range companies. 'We have reserved pounds 250,000 for a 10-week tour of Faust. But we do want to know who will be adapting it and who will be playing Faust. We want to know the artistic level before we commit ourselves.'

On the matter of The Seagull, she said that council officers had queried whether a plan for a Chekhov festival 'would be appropriate. We have to take into account what else is on offer'.

(Photograph omitted)

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