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Tempest in Britain's Theater Teapot

Stage* The Royal Shakespeare and other companies are in turmoil as artistic directors exit left and right.


LONDON — Last month, a British national newspaper carried a provocative article about the dissent and deep-seated policy differences tearing apart the Royal Shakespeare Company. The headline on the article, from Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," read: "Lord, What Fools These Mortals Be!"

The phrase seemed to have the ring of prophecy last week as Adrian Noble, RSC's artistic director for the last 12 years, announced his resignation, thus sending the company into turmoil.

Noble's announcement comes at a time when Britain's noncommercial theater sector is in a volatile state, with artistic directors coming and going with dizzying speed. At the National Theatre, Trevor Nunn will be succeeded by Nicolas Hytner next March. At the Donmar, Sam Mendes will give way to Michael Grandage in November. And Michael Attenborough is succeeding Nicholas Kent and Ian McDiarmid at the Almeida.

In recent months, Noble, 51, had suffered considerable criticism over his plans for a radical shakeup of the RSC, the biggest reorganization since its founding in 1961. These included demolishing the gigantic 70-year-old Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Bard's birthplace, and replacing it with a more intimate, audience-friendly space at the center of what he described as "a theater village." Architectural conservationists were appalled.

Noble also took steps to shorten RSC actors' contracts and reduce the size of the company. Backstage staff threatened strikes over job losses. In addition, Noble decided to abandon the Barbican, the London theater built for the RSC in 1982, in favor of a wider, more adventurous choice of venues.

Announcing that he would leave next March to become a freelance director, Noble said he knew his decision was "the right thing for me and the right thing for the RSC," which he first joined in 1980. "There have been absolutely extraordinary problems over the last 18 months while I have been pursuing this revolution in the company's history, and now I think I have laid the foundations for the future."

Others disagree. Sources within the RSC said Noble's supporters who had defended him internally were particularly infuriated that he had quit before his far-reaching reforms were completed.

The other aspect of Noble's departure to cause outrage is his timing. He had just returned to the RSC after a three-month sabbatical, during which he directed the new West End musical "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," a $9-million production, based on the 1968 film of the same title, that opened two weeks ago to good reviews. The musical about a wacky inventor and his flying car is a huge hit and has taken in $11.5 million in advance ticket sales. Now Noble, who has a share of its profits, stands to become wealthy.

Charles Spencer, the Daily Telegraph's outspoken theater critic, has led a media campaign against Noble. "He deserves contempt for his decision to bale out," Spencer has written. "What I feel for him now is close to disgust. If ever a captain appeared to be deserting what many perceive as a sinking ship ... then it is Noble. If he was determined to go, why didn't he do so before rather than after the opening of 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang'?

"The question will always remain: If 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' had flopped, would Noble so heedlessly have abandoned his company, waving a cheery 'who-needs-it' goodbye to his RSC salary? He stands revealed as a hollow man who lacks the courage of his own convictions."

Other media voices have criticized Noble's decision to quit. The Observer's critic Susannah Clapp wrote: "In terms of timing, it's a deed that beggars all description."

A handful of Britain's leading stage actors had previously entered the fray. Judi Dench and Michael Gambon had lent their support to a campaign to save the Royal Shakespeare Company from demolition. Another veteran actor, Donald Sinden, complained: "Don't change the theater, change the company."

In a letter to the British theater newspaper Stage two weeks ago, Dench wrote that she was "deeply worried" about Noble's reforms. Last year, Noble spoke out publicly about the "shocking forces of conservatism" within and outside the RSC that opposed his plans for reform.

These arguments have become public partly because about one-third of RSC's annual income (about $18.5 million) comes from public subsidies. Yet many of the issues currently causing controversy at the RSC apply to Britain's other leading noncommercial theater companies.

Noble is hardly the first big name from the subsidized sector to make a fortune from work in the commercial West End. Nunn became rich by directing "Cats" and "Starlight Express" for Andrew Lloyd Webber in the 1980s (while he was artistic director of the RSC). Hytner, too, became a millionaire as director of the original production of "Miss Saigon."

Yet Noble's departure from the RSC is a far more serious matter. The company is in disarray creatively, having received critical brickbats for a number of recent productions, notably "A Midsummer Night's Dream." A well-received RSC production, "The Winter's Tale," is currently playing to scant audiences at another London venue, the Roundhouse.

And morale within the company is low. An RSC spokesman said at the weekend: "It has been a testing time for staff over the past year." And now the company's future direction again has been thrown into disarray. Lord Alexander of Weedon, the RSC's chairman, is now hinting at the possibility of a complete rethink of Noble's proposed reforms--which may mean the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford could be saved from the wrecking ball. "Morale at the RSC has not been helped by Adrian's absence," said Alexander, who described the timing of his departure as "unfortunate."

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