One can only be accused of so much cultural vandalism before it starts sounding faintly ridiculous. When we embarked on modernising the Royal Shakespeare Company last year, there were clearly going to be rough seas ahead. Like many areas of British public life, reform of great cultural institutions is difficult. But change isn't just necessary in the arts, it's crucial. It's the 'institution' bit that's the problem.
But let me take you back exactly a year. The RSC had mounted the biggest project in its history, This England: The Histories, as a celebration of the millennium. Not only were the plays wonderfully received, but audiences were able for the first time ever in one sitting to see Shakespeare's complete eight-play history cycle, from Richard II to Richard III.
People emerged after almost a week of intensive theatre-going both exhausted and exhilarated. And everyone conceded that this was the RSC doing its business for the nation: changing our perceptions of Shakespeare; exporting the best of British theatre abroad (part of the cycle enjoyed a unique collaboration with a US university); and making Shakespeare's plays relevant to new audiences.
I can hear the question now though: what went wrong? In 12 months, the RSC has turned from the darlings of British culture into one of its pariahs. Like one of the ill-fated kings in Shakespeare's history plays, how did we let the crown slip?
The answer, ironically, lies in the staging of the history plays themselves. We could only have done that if we effectively chucked out the RSC rule book. Instead of constructing the idea around the RSC's structures, we thought up a crazy, impossible artistic idea – and let the rest follow. Rather than fitting the ideas of actors and directors around a schedule first framed in the Sixties, we let the artistic ideas shape it. And it was on that desperately simple principle – that artistic organisations need to be built to support art, not the other way round – that we reshaped the RSC.
The same is true this week as the company sets up in the Roundhouse in north London for a promenade season of three of Shakespeare's late plays: The Winter's Tale, The Tempest and Pericles, for which I'll be returning to the company to rehearse next month. All three plays are about journeys, so staging them in promenade – with the audience mingling with the actors – seemed like too good an idea to miss. The Roundhouse itself is one of the stars of the season, a unique venue with ghosts of rock concerts as well as performances steeped in its walls. It also has a fantastic track record for drawing new audiences – pulling people in who are curious and excited about the place.
And for us, it allows the most incredible freedom. Where else could the audience join in a hoe-down for the Bohemian dance scenes in Matthew Warchus's Winter's Tale, or witness the stunning, circus-inspired aerial work to come in Michael Boyd's Tempest?
Yet for the RSC, what's fundamentally different about this project – and the other two projects that will be launched in Stratford next month – is that they are based on a group of artists taking risks. Taking risks is what I do for a living. The skill of managing an arts organisation is managing risk. And for me, the first responsibility of any Government and arts funding regime is to encourage and support risk taking, and to manage failure.
The RSC was born out of a huge change in the UK theatre tradition – and now we are embarking on another. When Peter Hall created the RSC in the Sixties, he knew Stratford could no longer ignore the seismic changes going on elsewhere in the theatre community. The whole concept of producing authoritative, even definitive, performances of Shakespeare for the ruling classes to enjoy was losing its currency. Something new was needed, and of course, what Peter created was spectacularly new and spectacularly bold. But interestingly, and reassuringly for me, it was also criticised and undermined at the time by the theatre establishment.
There's no such thing as a theatrical model that will last a lifetime. The whole essence of the thing is managing continuous revolution. It seems to me that our job as managers wasn't just to sustain the present model, but to look round the next corner and the corner after. The RSC had developed on a capitalist model of expansion, creating more entrepreneurial energy, leading to more expansion. In any arts organisation, this is unsustainable. Meanwhile, we had created such a super-sensitive model that, by its very cost-efficiency, was in danger of ruining the art. We had to act to re-empower the art to run the structure. The key thing about structures is that they need to be flexible enough to let the art flourish.
Only by changing do we have we any hope of passing on a vibrant theatre tradition to the next generation. It sometimes feels like critics of the changes at the RSC would like, preserved in aspic, an idea of Stratford in the 1950s, where the great actors of the day gave their "definitive" performances. Yet if those pioneers in the Sixties had not thrown off the shackles of high culture, theatre would have died. Our challenge now if to do the same for a generation raised with the screen. The strength of theatre remains not in spectacle, which is now readily available at the click of a mouse button or television remote, but in the intimacy of the event. It's that powerful moment of interaction between actor and audience that I'm trying to rebuild the RSC around.
Change was never going to be easy, but it was always going to be worth it. Audiences at the Roundhouse from now until July will experience something unique from the RSC, and the first fruits of the changes we announced last year. In a process that is all about what happens from now on, what a shame to be damned by so many before an actor has set foot on stage.
The writer has been the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company since 1991Reuse content