The RSC's Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Credit: RSC

Who should lead the RSC? Not an actor

The best candidate is surely the RSC’s deputy Erica Whyman
June 16, 2022

In the riverside bars in Stratford-upon-Avon, there is but one conversation. Gregory Doran has retired after nearly 10 years as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) following the sudden terminal cancer diagnosis and then death, last December, of his husband, Antony Sher.

Much of the company remains in shock. Sher and Doran were partners in art as well as life. When they met at the RSC in 1987, Doran was the junior figure, playing the bit-part Solanio to Sher’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. By Sher’s death, they had established a creative collaboration that saw Doran direct and Sher lead some of the RSC’s most memorable productions. Long-serving RSC staff described them as parental figures who nurtured the company.

Still, a new leader must be found. Michael Billington, former theatre critic of the Guardian, has set the cat among the pigeons by suggesting the RSC be led by an actor-manager. Michelle Terry, artistic director of the Globe, and her predecessor Mark Rylance are presumably models for the sort of hands-dirty actor-manager Billington envisages. He suggests Adjoa Andoh, whose global fame as Bridgerton’s Lady Danbury follows a longer career as a major stage actor and director.

While I rarely disagree with Billington, I think the RSC has enough actors. Doran and Sher effectively provided a charismatic actor-manager model as a double-act, and even in their absence the place is not short of people who understand stagecraft. (Doran will continue with his respected verse-speaking workshop.) What is missing from Shakespearean practice in the UK is leadership by directors who understand and respect the detail of Shakespeare’s text. Modern productions are quick to slash and burn language seen as “problematic.” At the Globe this summer, productions of The Merchant of Venice and Henry VIII have each hacked away large chunks of the plays: the former to erase the slightest suggestion of wrong on Shylock’s part, and the latter to create new roles for women, including Henry VIII’s daughter Mary. Naturally there is no such thing as a text “as Shakespeare wrote it,” but sometimes I long for a production that has some relationship to early modern texts as first published.

Among the ranks of canonically trained directors, Blanche McIntyre’s name has been floated by both Billington and Clive Davis of the Times. McIntyre deserves to helm a leading company eventually and she combines an intellectually rigorous approach with a tremendous sense of theatre as fun. At just past 40, she’s still young and has never run a building. A smaller venue might provide suitable training wheels. That’s also true of Polly Findlay.

Among Britain’s established company leaders, the RSC might try to lure either Rupert Goold or Kwame Kwei-Armah from the Almeida and Young Vic respectively. Goold is known for smart productions of Shakespeare like his flashy, Vegas-inspired The Merchant of Venice with Ian McDiarmid; Kwei-Armah opened his tenure at the Young Vic with a musical Twelfth Night and proved himself in the US with productions of three Shakespeare plays at New York’s ultra-establishment Public Theatre. But neither man is uncontroversial in the industry. Josie Rourke, whose tenure leading the Donmar included Shakespeare productions like Coriolanus with Tom Hiddleston and Much Ado About Nothing with David Tennant and Catherine Tate, is currently focusing on film, but it might be worth the RSC asking her back to the stage. Simon Godwin, former associate director of the National and now leading the Shakespeare Theatre Company in America, must also be a candidate.

Here are three of my ones to watch—who also happen to provide a break from its history of exclusively white male bosses. Iqbal Khan has a long history with the RSC, has directed locally responsive Shakespeare productions all over the globe, and understands Warwickshire as associate director of the Birmingham Rep and artistic director of the opening ceremony of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. As a younger wild card, Justin Audibert is a talented Shakespeare director who built the RSC’s lockdown homeschooling project for the BBC. As artistic director of the Unicorn theatre for children, he understands the remit of a family theatre.

But the best candidate is surely Erica Whyman, the RSC’s deputy—and not just for steadying the ship during Doran’s absence. In truth, Whyman has kept the RSC afloat for years, running  the place day-to-day while Doran served as its public face, and leading the 2016 launch of The Other Place, the RSC’s studio. Her previous work leading Northern Stage and London’s Gate Theatre showed she is a thoughtful, text-led director, and her RSC productions like 2016’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream showed a careful ability to root our national stories in Shakespeare’s texts. In many sectors, it’s too common that a woman who’s put in the grunt work as deputy is overlooked for a louder man. The RSC should break that mould.