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Andrzej Lukowski: Edward Hall leaves Hampstead a success – on his own terms if not always ours

Edward Hall at Hampstead Theatre, London. Photo: Helen Maybanks Edward Hall at Hampstead Theatre, London. Photo: Helen Maybanks
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I recently interviewed Sean Holmes about his departure from the Lyric Hammersmith. He mused that as his reign wore on, mainstream theatre drifted ever closer towards what he was doing, meaning what he was doing seemed incrementally less unusual.

You could probably say the exact opposite for Edward Hall, who announced last week that he will be stepping down as Hampstead Theatre artistic director next year.

Shortly after he took the job in 2010, I remember a genuine sense of relief that he had restored functionality to an ailing institution. So when he leaves after almost a decade of service, what will be made of his reign? As with many departing artistic directors who have clocked up significant time at a venue, it has been a mixed bag.

At the mention of Hall’s name, many will think of last year, when he was taken to task by some 50 playwrights and directors in an extraordinary open letter decrying the lack of female playwrights and directors in his 2017 autumn season. This, and his rambling, flustered response, probably cemented a view of Hampstead as London’s least hip new-writing theatre.

His immediate peers shifted from Nicholas Hytner, Dominic Cooke and Michael Attenborough to Rufus Norris, Vicky Featherstone and Rupert Goold, and while gender wasn’t always the issue, he seemed increasingly out of step with what they were programming.

There was also the thorny question of his signature achievement, the full time(ish) programming of the Downstairs studio theatre. While it was undoubtedly a good thing to commission more new work (though there was some controversy over the economics of it), the policy of not inviting reviewers in always seemed self-defeating – the shows simply didn’t get much attention. The policy was belatedly binned on the quiet.

Basically, there were goofs during his reign. But they shouldn’t overshadow the fact that, by many measures, Hall made a good fist out of a difficult job. Even down to dealing with a small theatre with an enormous and extremely tricky stage.

‘His departure will not be mourned by the commentariat, but he balanced the books in the face of repeated funding cuts’

Some of the programming was good, and there were numerous West End transfers: Ecstasy, Chariots of Fire, The Judas Kiss, Good People and Sunny Afternoon. Michael Longhurst has directed some great work there in the last couple of seasons including Caroline, or Change, which is also set to transfer, and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria. And it’s worth noting that it’s rarely been as square as all that: Katie Mitchell directed two shows, for crying out loud.

The dearth of women in the 2017 season was unforgivable. But it was also a blip. And despite some of the excuses made in his bizarre response letter, it’s to his credit that Hall stepped up and responded with an almost entirely female authored follow up season. Hall’s transgressions were no worse than those of the zeitgeisty Goold (and he’s programmed more writers of colour). That doesn’t make either acceptable, but only one of them got stick for it.

Maybe there’s a more fundamental point too: if a lot of his programming was kind of uncool, then there’s a place for that. There have been a lot of popular modern American plays that have done well over there but don’t really fit our increasingly Europeanised theatre aesthetics. Hampstead offered many of them a home.

That it seems to be the obvious venue for the UK premiere of Stephen Karam’s massively acclaimed The Humans, which opens next week, is testament to Hall’s programming. And let’s not forget that writers such as Beth Steel, or even latter-day Howard Brenton, were offered opportunities by Hall’s Hampstead that they didn’t seem to be getting from anyone else. I recently mentioned the infamous open letter to Nina Raine, but she was highly protective of Hall, saying he’d been the only artistic director in London willing to stage her medical drama Tiger Country, which duly went on to be a massive hit.

His departure will not be mourned by the commentariat, but he balanced the books in the face of repeated funding cuts, made a success of plays that other people wouldn’t even programme and scored numerous West End transfers. He dabbled with free online screenings of shows, and whether or not Downstairs could have been handled better, it has provided an opportunity for writers – especially at the start of their career – that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

It will be interesting to see what happens to Hampstead after he’s gone: there is clearly the opportunity to make it into a vastly cooler venue, but is that what its audience wants or needs? As the bullish press release announcing his departure confirms, Ed Hall leaves Hampstead Theatre as a success – on his terms, if not always ours.

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