Richard Jordan: Bravery is key as artistic directors face theatre’s wheel of fortune

Erin Doherty in The Divide at Old Vic, London. Photo: Manuel Harlan Erin Doherty in The Divide at Old Vic, London. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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Theatre is often compared to a race: which building or company is getting ahead? Which is falling behind? A theatre can end up being stuck in a rut if it a produces a series of flops, and a poor reputation can take years to shake off.

For those in the buildings, rather than a sporting competition, it must be tempting to put down the vagaries of leadership to the wheel of fortune. And it often takes strong leadership in the face of adversity to get through a downward spin.

Many questioned the leadership of the NT’s artistic director, Rufus Norris, last summer after two productions in the Olivier received scathing reviews. This came ahead of a challenging autumn when his season faced (unfair) comparisons with the output from Nick Starr and Nicholas Hytner – his predecessors at the National – in their shiny new Bridge Theatre.

By then, the National was considered back on form with Follies and Network, two productions beloved by critics and audiences, and all those doubts about Norris had evaporated. Meanwhile, for the Bridge, stellar reviews came in for the building, but for its first production, Young Marx, the critics were lukewarm. The two Nicks came back swinging with the thrilling promenade staging of Julius Caesar.

What may be concerning is the speed at which the fortunes of a theatre can change in either direction and, with that, the public and media perception of an institution or a company’s creative leader. It’s a reminder that steering a theatre can be a highly demanding job: the artistic director always needs to be ready to adapt and ride out the rough with the smooth. This encompasses not only the programming, but also responding to the challenges facing their building and the wider environment.

The arrival of a new artistic director means renewed scrutiny, especially with the attachment an audience has often built with the predecessor. Comparisons and criticisms are inevitable as the former regime can be viewed with rose-tinted glasses.

When Matthew Warchus’ arrived as the Old Vic’s new artistic director in 2015, he rolled out star-driven, sell-out productions including The Caretaker, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and the musical Groundhog Day.

Groundhog Day review at the Old Vic, London – ‘an absolute triumph’

His theatre, however, has had a difficult eight months.

Last August, its high-profile premiere of The Divide at the Edinburgh International Festival – a two-parter by Alan Ayckbourn – was panned, leaving big decisions ahead of its London transfer in 2018. And two months later, through no fault of Warchus’ leadership, the Old Vic was caught up in the harassment scandal hitting numerous industries in the wake of the Weinstein revelations, following allegations made against former artistic director Kevin Spacey.

I felt sorry for Warchus, who had been doing some fine work, but that no longer mattered as, in a matter of months, it had started to feel as if the Old Vic was in serious trouble. At the press conference the Old Vic held on November 16, 2017, which addressed its subsequent internal investigation into what happened under the former artistic director, Matthew Warchus said; “My big hope is it doesn’t reflect on the Old Vic as a name.”

It was sad to consider the damage caused, when only the previous April the theatre had celebrated its success at the Olivier Awards with the coveted best musical award for Groundhog Day. It also demonstrated why there is never any place for complacency in the theatre.

So I hope that last Saturday’s final performance of The Divide proves something of an upward turn for Warchus, even if there may be more turbulence ahead for the building. I admired the play’s ambition and performances: and was glad that, despite its Edinburgh press reaction, Warchus did not simply scrap its London transfer – instead the production was reshaped for the Old Vic. That took brave leadership, being aware of the risk of more negative commentary directed at his theatre during a very delicate and difficult time.

Warchus also demonstrated that a strong artistic leader stands by what they produce and programme. It’s been an understandably nervous and unsettling period, but with a lot of lessons learned. I hope the Old Vic can now move forward with a regained confidence, and in turn, a reversal of fortunes.

Nonetheless, its management must regret that its reaction was neither as swift nor robust as the Royal Court’s. Artistic director Vicky Featherstone gave an excellent example of proactive leadership of a building. She tackled allegations against former artistic director Max-Stafford Clark head-on and immediately organised a “day of action”. Featherstone did not hold back from the gathering storm but stepped into its eye, making her theatre a necessary force at the front of the conversation.

Bravery can be shown in many ways, and it is essential for an artistic director who wants to ride out those spins of fortune’s wheel.