Artistic Directors of theatres large and small get their jobs on the basis of success in many different fields. The majority tend to be theatre directors, but some are also actors, while it is not unknown for producers to take on such roles. In almost every case, their experience of working in theatre is wide but rarely directed towards the skills needed to succeed in the most vital position in their company.
In some ways, it is rather like the difference between playing a sport or musical instrument and teaching it. While superlative players are often very good instructors, that tends to be as much down to coincidence as innate ability.
All too often, audiences might be at least mildly disappointed when they learn about a new season’s programme from a favourite theatre, which can owe as much to budget restraints as lack of ambition. There might be too much bland or radical new writing, a reliance on tried and trusted classics—not A Christmas Carol or A Midsummer’s Night Dream again. However, occasionally an Artistic Director will get something absolutely right, capturing the imagination of prospective audiences and guaranteeing a successful season.
Perhaps the best at this in recent decades has been Sir Nicholas Hytner at the National. We may now be looking back with rose-tinted glasses, but he rarely seemed to get it wrong, balancing old and new to perfection and almost always setting the metaphorical mouth watering with his announcements.
This week, a package landed on this critic’s doorstep having flown in all the way from Canada. It featured the announcement of Stratford Festival’s programme for 2022 and promised to “Celebrate a New Beginning”.
We can all understand the anticipation and relief of a theatre company that has spent two years working online and behind-the-scenes, with only a small amount of work presented live in oversized tents. To add to the excitement in Ontario, the company is also going into a full-scale launch of its new Tom Patterson Theatre.
Like the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford Festival builds its own company of players, which helps its artistic leader, Antoni Cimolino, with cohesion and creative programming. What he has come up with for 2022 sounds both challenging and thrilling. Following the current fashion, his Hamlet in the old Festival Theatre, Amaka Umeh, is female and also stars in Wole Soyinka’s modern classic Death and the King’s Horseman.
The serious Shakespeare in the Tom Patterson is Richard III, played by a Stratford favourite, Colm Feore. This is balanced by a play that seems more popular in North America than the UK, All’s Well That Ends Well.
There are lighter shows to balance Shakespearean history and tragedy, with a fresh production of Chicago and Ranjit Bolt’s new version of Molière’s The Miser. There is also a world première commission for children of Little Women, adapted by Jordi Mand.
If this sounds varied but mildly unadventurous, viewers then need to look at programming in the more experimental Studio Theatre. There, viewers can see a polyamorous sex romp, Every Little Nookie by Sunny Drake, the intriguing sounding Hamlet—911 from Anne-Marie MacDonald and 1939, a play by Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan in which indigenous students are introduced to the genius of Shakespeare via All’s Well That Ends Well.
Without wishing to denigrate the efforts of any London or regional British company, it is hard to believe that even the very best could get close to competing with this wonderful mixture of old and new, sacred and profane. Let’s hope that others around the world can be inspired by Antoni Cimolino’s imagination and sense of adventure.
While many, like this sheltering writer, are unlikely to be able to make the trip across the Atlantic to visit Stratford this summer, one hopes that in the fullness of time the company will share many of these shows with a wider audience via their excellent [email protected] streaming service.
I can’t wait.