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HighTide’s Steven Atkinson: Could ensembles be theatre’s saviour?

Toneelgroep’s Kings of War (2015). Photo: Jan Versweyveld

While they are common in Continental Europe, there is no major subsidised theatre in England with a permanent company of actors at its heart. HighTide artistic director Steven Atkinson says we’re missing a trick

I’ve never met Purni Morell. And even though she left her position as artistic director of the Unicorn Theatre only recently, I miss her. Her fearless exit interview with Matt Trueman in this paper was personable and intelligent.

Unicorn’s Purni Morell: ‘Theatre is an industry – unless we get rid of that, we’ll have no art’ [1]

The detail that really caught my eye was her unsuccessful pitch to be artistic director of the Young Vic. Morell wanted an ensemble. She didn’t even get an interview.

Why is there no major subsidised theatre in England, or for that matter the UK (save for Dundee Rep [2]) that has a permanent ensemble of actors at the heart of its artistic vision? The closest we have is the five-month season at the Liverpool Everyman [3]. And, although it’s paying artistic dividends, only half of the company from the first year returned for the second.

With ever-increasing frequency, when I meet with directors, talk quickly shifts to our passion for ensembles. In her interview, Morell dispels the economic unfeasibility of ensembles: “You spend one million employing 30 actors at £30,000. Done.”

British theatre’s resistance towards ensembles is not mirrored in Europe. In fact, it’s likely we will lose some of our most talented new directors to working there. Robert Icke [4], for example, opened Oedipus with Amsterdam’s Toneelgroep last month.

When Laurence Olivier was interviewed in 1966 for the BBC series Great Acting, he proselytised about ensembles. “Yes” was his simple reply to Kenneth Tynan, who asked whether the creation of an ensemble was his primary motivation to becoming director of London’s National Theatre.

Olivier’s ensemble at the National ended with his directorship and since then there have been a few noteworthy reoccurrences.

In recent times, the Royal Shakespeare Company’ [5]s two ensemble seasons were the result of then artistic director Michael Boyd’s experiences in Russian theatre.

And Sean Holmes said his Secret Theatre [6] “was about empowering the actors individually and collectively to reach their potential”, which he also observed in Europe.

But refreshing as these projects have been, the Barbican’s Louise Jeffreys [7] and Toni Racklin [8], plus David Lan at the Young Vic, have done the most to turn British audiences and artists on to ensemble companies.

Read our interview with David Lan [9]

Jeffreys and Racklin first introduced Toneelgroep Amsterdam to British audiences in 2009.

Toneelgroep is Ivo van Hove [10]’s company and it is a permanent acting ensemble. Lan firmly established Van Hove in the UK by producing his A View from the Bridge [11], arguably the most influential production of recent times.

Although A View from the Bridge popularised Van Hove, his Toneelgroep work is superior to his freelance work. That’s less a critique of Van Hove, but an acknowledgement of the fine acting delivered by Toneelgroep. Its productions such as Roman Tragedies [12], The Fountainhead and Kings of War [13] are cited by theatremakers with the hushed tones of reverence once used by a former generation for Peter Brook.

What’s key about Toneelgroep’s work is British audiences have had access to it and we’ve seen first hand the unique and extraordinary qualities this theatre has, because the heart of it is a permanent ensemble of actors.

Ensembles have the potential to remedy some of British theatre’s biggest problems

Less familiar than conversations about how good ensemble acting is are those about the producing model of ensembles. And it’s here I believe ensembles have the potential to remedy some of British theatre’s biggest problems.

Mid-scale touring is in pretty dire shape. Audiences in Bath, Cambridge and Salford were lucky to have Schiller in their cities recently courtesy of the Almeida’s Mary Stuart, but that’s only three mid-scale theatres. And it doesn’t remedy the issue that London audiences have regular access to challenging plays, leading actors and innovative stagings, when regional audiences do not.

Members of an ensemble are rarely all in the one production. To take Toneelgroep as an example, through good scheduling some actors can be on stage in Amsterdam, some rehearsing and others on tour. As a result, audiences at home and elsewhere have access to the same consistently high quality.

Secondly, London theatres such as the Donmar and Almeida sell out as regularly as people query why these venues receive Arts Council subsidy instead of asking their core audiences to pay more to subsidise others. Having an ensemble on tour would certainly improve accessibility. It would also improve quality.

As Secret Theatre demonstrated, ensembles encourage producers to think outside the box. Nadia Albina was a brilliant Blanche in its Streetcar, but at the time her profile wasn’t that of Gillian Anderson or Rachel Weisz, the other recent Blanches on London stages. And Golda Rosheuvel has made waves playing Othello in the Everyman Rep [14].

Read our interview with Golda Rosheuvel [15]

I dream of putting a new play before an ensemble. Saved from the usual hurdles of conventional script development, where the actors and directors have little time to get to know each other and build trust, an ensemble can focus on the play.

In the Great Acting interview, Olivier says ensembles “are more important to an audience than the star system”. I think this is a reference to the unmistakable quality of ensemble acting, or as Olivier describes it “that hot-breath of unity”.

Imagine the UK theatre touring circuit headlined by outstanding ensembles, delivering the classics and new work and not just the tired ‘big titles’. The belief that a totally unique and brilliant quality of acting can only be seen on stage remains a compelling reason to attend live theatre. But the problem is that many productions fall short of this promise.

Toneelgroep has 22 actors and they are the primary focus of the company. The ensemble has stars, like Marieke Heebink and Hans Kesting, and it is training the stars of the future in younger actors such as Eelco Smits.

As Morell said, if you want an ensemble with 30 actors – and that seems to me a sensible number for simultaneous performing, rehearsing and touring – then you need to commit £1 million a year. There are plenty of theatres with turnovers of several million.

We need a producing theatre – not necessarily in London – to commit wholeheartedly to an ensemble at the centre of its vision. It will be the tonic needed to redress several deep-seated challenges in our theatres. And more than that, it will hopefully get audiences across the UK as excited as those who have been fortunate enough to see Toneelgroep at the Barbican.