Adrian Noble: Shakespeare's most ambitious Noble

By James Morrison
Monday 14 April 2014 02:45
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Adrian Noble is in a hurry. Ten minutes into our allotted interview time he rushes breathlessly into the room, sizzling with manic intensity and the air of a man who is a past master at making up for lost time.

He wants me to know that he has fitted me in between rehearsals for the Royal Shakespeare Company's latest production. We have 20 minutes available before the cast of Alice in Wonderland return from their afternoon tea break, and the white rabbit's watch is ticking.

A decade into his stewardship of the RSC, Noble is nearing the end of his most tempestuous year to date. First came the mauling he received from the Arts Council over his supposed over-emphasis on works by playwrights other than the Bard. Then came the furore surrounding the RSC's decision to shed more than 100 technical jobs by reorganising its presence in Stratford-upon-Avon, and severing the links with its London home at the Barbican in favour of the bright lights of the West End.

Now, wearied by months of skirmishes, one could forgive him for wanting to retreat to the security of his castle like a battle-scarred, latter-day Macbeth.

But this being Adrian Noble, perhaps the most ambitious artistic director in the history of the RSC, there is little chance of that. Instead, he has just embarked on his most testing challenge yet: the task of convincing the establishment that the future of the RSC will be best served by knocking down its historic base in Stratford and starting all over again. After months of backstage consultation, Noble finally unveiled his audacious £100m blueprint for a 14-acre "riverside village" last week. Central to this masterplan is the demolition of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, its bulky Grade II* listed home, built in 1932, and its replacement with an all-singing, all-dancing, 1,050-seat, 21st- century playhouse.

While English Heritage has given the scheme its qualified support, Stratford-on-Avon District Council remains to be convinced, and the 20th Century Society, one of the agencies which has to be consulted about the re-development, has already vowed to fight it to the end. Noble remains steadfast.

"It's been part of our lives for so long, we aren't getting rid of it lightly," explains the 51-year-old father-of-two. "We've simply undertaken a scientific analysis of what we need to achieve in the future, and we've come to the conclusion we can't achieve it either by gutting the theatre or rebuilding specifically in the auditorium section."

Yet the scheme's opponents, he says, "are effectively saying that we have to carry on working in a theatre that has long been deemed to be unsatisfactory".

He adds defiantly: "We are a working theatre ... and I believe we have the obligation to deliver fantastic productions that the country can be proud of when visitors from all over the world come to see the home of William Shakespeare."

One of the most hotly debated issues of the past six months has been Noble's decision to introduce greater contractual flexibility so as to attract actors whose busy schedules have, in the past, precluded them from signing-up for the RSC's traditional two-year seasons. Announced as it was alongside news that both Ralph Fiennes and Kenneth Branagh had committed themselves to forthcoming productions, the change was viewed by some as proof positive of a creeping commercialisation within the 40-year-old company – a charge Noble strongly rebuts. Yet rumours persist, for example, that he wants three-times Oscar nominee Morgan Freeman to take the lead in the RSC's much-heralded Othello in collaboration with New York's Lincoln Centre.

"Fundamentally, we've a dedication to British artists," he says, but "we are starting to live in a more international age in which we can constructively develop relationships with people abroad. I think the industry should embrace that.

"The whole point of the RSC is that it makes itself accessible to people at every point in their career, including actors at the top of their professions."

To emphasise the spirit of internationalism, Noble reels off a suitably cosmopolitan list of coming attractions. Among these is next year's adaptation of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, to be performed by a predominantly Asian cast in repertory with a Shakespeare play, as yet unspecified. The production will start out in Stratford, before touring England, followed by other countries including, it is hoped, India, Pakistan and America.

There are also plans for an ensemble to visit London's Roundhouse with three late Shakespeare plays, The Tempest, A Winter's Tale and the seldom-performed Pericles, directed by Noble himself.

Asked if he has recently been tempted to call it a day, after 10 colourful and turbulent years that have seen him delight, confound and occasionally infuriate his public, Noble replies with the energetic and dismissive air of a man who feels his job is far from done: "No. I've a few more things to do before I can think about that."

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