During the run of The Winter's Tale at the Young Vic in 1991, audiences were taken aback when a man in a suit bounded on to the stage mid-curtain-call, and brandished a red bucket. He apologised (for the suit - a necessary accessory for raising money, he said) and invited the audience to fill the bucket with money.
This was the artistic director and his bucket speech was part of the Save the Young Vic campaign. It was a gesture typical of David Thacker: affable, upfront - and successful. The theatre resounded to the clatter of coins on plastic.
During the nine years that he has been at the Young Vic, Thacker has exhibited a daunting ability to coax people into doing things for the theatre. His swansong before leaving this spring for the RSC is a new play by Arthur Miller, one of many famous figures he has linked with the theatre; he has also enticed some fine actors to work in the modest space - Vanessa Redgrave and Helen Mirren among them.
'I'm extremely grateful to Vanessa Redgrave for being the one who led the way,' says Thacker. 'It's like Georgie Best joining your local football team - the status immediately rockets.'
She appeared in Ibsen's Ghosts, one of the classic revivals that have peppered Thacker's Young Vic tenure. 'He has an extraordinary capacity to come up with ambitious ideas for casting,' says David Calder, who acted in Othello and The Price. 'I bet that if he felt Robert De Niro was the right guy for the part he would be able to get in touch with him. It's a kind of guileless quality he has - and it works.'
The actress Saskia Reeves recalls being taken aback by his direct approach: 'He phoned me at home to ask me to play a part. He was the first director ever to have done that.' She also points out that part of Thacker's success springs from the fact that he places such emphasis on casting. 'I remember doing two very long auditions with him. He made me work very hard to get that part, but when I got it, I knew he didn't want anyone else to do it. He's good at instilling confidence.'
Thacker likens his rehearsal technique to a school science lesson. 'You have a hypothesis which you test through experimentation. I start with an idea that will be endorsed or corrected by the cast. I'm the leader, I've got to show the way - but I have to convince them it's the way to go.'
'You never feel your arm is being twisted,' says the actress Susannah York of Thacker's approach. 'You always feel that anything you say will be listened to. .'
To many actors this is a most attractive way of rehearsing. David Calder points out that it is partly Thacker's egalitarian method in rehearsals that entices top-drawer performers to work with him: 'He differs from some directors in that there is less tendency to impose on an actor - it's a great strength, though it could also be a weakness. Actors do require the security of parameters, which David doesn't lay down until quite late. Plus there is the danger that if you don't go in with an idea of where a play might lead you, you may end up in a cul-de-sac. The strength is that when it works he makes you feel this play has never been done before. At his best, he lets plays speak for themselves.'
Nearly all Thacker's productions have exemplified this freedom, offering lucid, uncluttered and passionate readings of the texts. There have been a few exceptions - his recent production of The Merry Wives of Windsor for the RSC foundered. 'Sometimes I think I fail to offer the leadership that's required,' admits Thacker. 'And sometimes I haven't been clear enough about a play.'
But it is also Thacker's choice of plays that has secured the Young Vic's reputation. He has fed his audiences a meaty diet of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Miller, Albee, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill. 'I love American playwrights,' answers Thacker, when challenged on the heavy bias towards writers from the States. 'The passion and the emotional content of the plays is linked with a ferocious intellect. An American friend of mine came to see my production of Measure for Measure and paid me what I thought was a lovely compliment. He said 'You direct Shakespeares as if they were American plays]' '
It's appropriate, then, that Thacker bows out with The Last Yankee - a play written by the American playwright he holds in highest esteem. He has made Arthur Miller something of a house speciality, and the playwright has overseen several of the productions. 'To my mind he is the greatest living playwright,' says Thacker. 'His plays also hit right at the centre of the Young Vic policy - they are accessible to a large number of people. I think he finds the mix of people who come to the Young Vic very appealing.'
One of the strengths of Thacker's tenure has been that he has mounted excellent productions of classic plays while keeping faith with the Young Vic's original remit to provide cheap theatre for young audiences. He also leaves to his successor (who should be named in February) a theatre that's financially and structurally sound. He has had a fight to get there, though. When he arrived, the building was rough - 'every time it rained it used to leak on the stage' - but problems reached a crisis in 1990 when the theatre failed to meet the licensing requirements and he was faced with the repair bill.
'That was my darkest moment in nine years here: I had to go to the board of management and advise them that, in my view, they needed to make me and the whole staff redundant because we would be trading illegally in the future. But I convinced them that the way forward was to go public on this.' It was then that the buckets made their appearance: the Save the Young Vic campaign eventually raised the necessary pounds 350,000.
Thacker's reign has not always been rose-scented. Two years ago he ran aground with Sex Please, We're Italian], a farce by Tom Kempinski that met with a wholesale drubbing by the critics.
'I have to say that I found Tom's script very, very funny,' says Thacker. 'But I seriously misjudged the way the play would be received. I'll never forget the press night. After three minutes I knew it was going to be a complete disaster. It was a bit like picking your nose at a royal dinner or something . . . doing it here was a chronic misjudgement on my part and I totally deserved the lambasting I got. If you set yourself up, as I did, as a person who's trying to do plays of great artistic merit, you can't suddenly do something really different.'
Thacker puts his mistake down partly to the fatigue induced by a year of raising money and, though sad to leave the Young Vic, he will not be sorry to lose that draining responsibility. As a 'director in residence' at the RSC (where he has directed several productions, including a charming Thirties-set Two Gentlemen of Verona as well as The Merry Wives), he will direct two plays a year, and spend the rest of his time freelance. After a decade of running and championing the Young Vic, he relishes the idea of focusing on directing.
'I've been running theatres for 14 years now and it does take its toll - in certain respects I feel my work has suffered a bit. I just hope I've managed to leave before my sell-by date is up.'
'The Last Yankee' is in preview and opens on 26 January at the Young Vic, London SE1 (071-928 6363).
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