It’s time for the Royal Shakespeare Company to be led by an actor

<span>Photograph: Tim Gainey/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Tim Gainey/Alamy

When the boss of a big theatre company stands down it is usually the cue for change or continuity. In the case of Greg Doran – who has resigned as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company but will keep his links with it as a director emeritus and a verse specialist – I hope it will be both. The RSC urgently needs a reboot. And some things are worth preserving.

Doran’s greatest achievement during his 10-year tenure has been overlooked: he revamped the idea of the Shakespeare repertory. His grand scheme was to present each of Shakespeare’s plays within eight years (it stretched to 10 because of Covid). Pre-Doran, a Stratford season would be built around the bankable hits with a few oddities such as King John or Timon of Athens thrown in. That meant that popular plays such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Twelfth Night would come round every two or three years, thus forcing directors to find ever more extravagant variations on over-familiar texts. Doran democratised the rep by ensuring that each play had only one production within the cycle so that Much Ado had no more exposure than Measure for Measure.

Doran did many other things. He directed some fine productions, of which King Lear, Death of a Salesman (both with his late partner, Antony Sher) and The Tempest stand out. He saw the theatrical potential of epic novels such as Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell sequence and Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy. He also increased the number of female directors, gave black and Asian actors lead roles and was open to incorporating non-professional talent. Doran deserves credit for all this. But I would argue that the RSC desperately needs two things: a permanent London base and the capacity to combine ensemble work with blood-stirring star casting.

Adjoa Andoh photographed in West London.
A charismatic RSC leader? Star of Richard II and Bridgerton Adjoa Andoh. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

When it comes to the choice of Doran’s successor, I have a radical idea. Why, for once, should the company not be led by an actor rather than a director – someone who combines a passion for Shakespeare with an ability to attract lustrous colleagues? It is not without precedent – as Laurence Olivier at the National Theatre and Mark Rylance and Michelle Terry at Shakespeare’s Globe have proved – and it could mean more emphasis was placed on actors’ performances than directors’ concepts.

The RSC needs the kind of permanent London base it so wantonly discarded. It should once more become a magnet for the most exciting talent in the land

Two names come to mind. One is Adjoa Andoh who, if she could be prised out of Bridgerton, would be a charismatic and inspirational leader. I base this on the work I have seen her do on stage including an astonishing Richard II, of which she was the star and co-director and which boasted an all-female cast of colour, at Shakespeare’s Globe. My other candidate would be Simon Russell Beale who is a proven Shakespearean and possesses the kind of inquiring mind that any theatrical organisation needs. Would other actors not want to join a company led by either of these?

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I realise the RSC governors are more likely to play safe and choose a director, in which case I would put forward four names. Simon Godwin, whose record includes an RSC Hamlet and a National Theatre Antony and Cleopatra, would be a frontrunner, although he is currently based in Washington DC. I also have great faith in Blanche McIntyre, whose dazzling production of Titus Andronicus in the RSC’s 2017 Roman season was one of the best Shakespeares of recent times. Owen Horsley, whose current productions of the Henry VI plays at Stratford have won him golden opinions, seems to possess the qualities of a natural leader. And Erica Whyman, who is currently acting artistic director of the RSC, has the advantage of being in situ.

But I go back to my original point. The RSC cannot simply stand still. It needs the kind of permanent London base it so wantonly discarded. It also should once more become a magnet for the most exciting talent in the land. How to achieve that? By overturning expectations and putting a lead actor in charge.