The one bit of theatre news that chased me down to my holiday last week, as I mentioned here only yesterday, was the fact that Antony Clark has finally resigned as artistic director at Hampstead Theatre after seven years at the helm.
In some ways, it is amazing that he has lasted this long: I can’t think of another theatre that has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous bad reviews like it has over the same time period. In 2004, Nick Stafford’s play Love Me Tonight was described in one review as “a play so ghastly that I can only assume Hampstead is now using a pin to select plays for production.”
Then again, four years later, 2008 began with a review of Penny Gold’s The President’s Holiday, based on the diaries of Gorbachev’s wife Raisa, that asked, “Did anyone at Hampstead even bother to read this play before staging it? If they had done, surely they might have noticed the complete absence of tension, the unbearably stilted dialogue, the contrived parallels between the fate of the president and that of the last tsar, the thin characterisations (in particular, the Gorbachevs’ hysterical daughter) and an English tone so inappropriate that Gorbachev resembles a headmaster at a minor English public school attempting to quell a tuck shop rebellion. ‘This is intolerable,’ he huffs and puffs. It is. Roll on the theatrical revolution in NW3.”
It didn’t arrive in time for April de Angelis’ Amongst Friends to be given house room at the theatre at the start of this summer, where one review labelled it a “preposterous comedy that comes with shades of JB Priestley and such an overload of creakiness that for all its references to bankers and politicians, you would have thought it was written early last century rather than last week”.
All three of those reviews, were of course, just one-star, and — as it happens — were written by The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner. At the start of the summer, Charles Spencer began his review of April de Angelis’ Amongst Friends in the Daily Telegraph by declaring, “Another day, another dud at Hampstead”; while Ian Kennedy Martin’s Berlin Hanover Express had also been judged by him to be “another dud for Hampstead.” In Time Out, Andrew Haydon’s judgement of the same play in Time Out declared that “Hampstead Theatre’s unerring lack of talent for picking new plays continues with this turkey.” (On the other hand, Michael Coveney’s review in The Independent gave it four stars, calling it “a powerful slice of period drama”, and Tim Walker in the Sunday Telegraph gave it five stars).
There are many other examples. No wonder that, as Michael Billington noted in a Guardian blog last week, Clark “has taken a lot of flak: some of it justified, some not.” He notes that the theatre has had its share of duds - but also says it has done some good new plays. “But, in theatre as in politics, there comes a point when a consensual media narrative takes hold. I guess Clark must have got fed up with being told, whatever the evidence, that Hampstead was in a state of terminal decline.”
He’s right - the evidence I provided above is only a partial picture. There have been a couple of West End transfers - for Losing Louis and a revival of What the Butler Saw; some awards (for Comfort me with Apples, which won author Nell Leyshon the Evening Standard’s Most Promising Playwright Award, for James Phillips’ The Rubenstein Kiss, which won the TMA Award for Best New play and the John Whiting Award), and for Dennis Kelly’s Taking Care of Baby, which won the Wolff Whiting Award), and some popular hits.
But the trouble is that a bad smell has attached to the place, and it has become difficult to dispel. Last September I wrote here how “I am usually depressed nowadays by the prospect of visiting Hampstead Theatre - whereas I am delighted by the idea of going to the Arcola. That’s because the Arcola has managed to build my trust in the last few years that my time there is usually going to be well rewarded - whereas at Hampstead my hopes for that outcome have been serially eroded. The Arcola may not be the easiest theatre to travel to, but it is always a pleasure to arrive; the reverse feels true at Hampstead.” On that occasion I was writing after the experience of seeing another terrible show there, Turandot, and said that “it added another dire evening there to the sense memory that already attaches to the place”. The effect, in other words, is cumulative, and you go there now not in hope but in fear.
Whoever takes over now, of course, has a tough act to follow: to rebuild the trust critics and theatregoers used to have in this theatre. So what’s the answer? Michael Billington suggests that “Hampstead has to redefine its purpose”, and to this end he proposes that Hampstead shifts its policy away from being a new writing theatre - where, as he says, it is “now competing in an increasingly crowded market” - and explores “the more neglected plays (British, Irish, American) of the last 100 years.”
Michael notes, “I can already hear the roar of protest from living writers”; and they duly check in, including the ever-articulate David Eldridge, in the 40 comments so far posted in reply. And the problems, of course, go deeper than simply the tastes of an artistic director and his literary manager, and the supply and demand of new writing: they are also to do with the entire culture by which news plays are processed and nurtured in the theatre.
But what is also in no doubt, as Michael Coveney puts it, is that “Hampstead needs a serious shake-up and shake-out. It hasn’t maintained its profile in the commercial sphere and it’s failed to translate the exciting work in its youth theatre programme into main stage energy, in the way that Dominic Cooke has so notably done at the Royal Court. The place seems smug and sleepy, too.”
It’s time to rouse this potentially sleeping giant. I’ve previously wondered aloud whether the Bush could take it over - I was writing in January 2008 when the Bush was under threat from the Arts Council, and said then, “Perhaps it’s time for the Bush - who have been looking to relocate from the pub on the corner of Shepherd’s Bush Green for some time now - to simply take over Hampstead. Or perhaps Hampstead’s grant could be reallocated to the Bush and other new writing venues and companies, with Hampstead given to a commercial management to run as an off-West End house.”
The Bush’s former artistic director Mike Bradwell posted a reply at the time, “Mark Shenton may also be interested to know that in 1982 Hull Truck were trying to build a new theatre and having difficulties .Lincolnshire and Humberside Arts Association stepped in and gave them Spring Street after first removing the failing organisation that was running it. Hull Truck have been there ever since.”
Times change, of course, and Hull Truck have this year opened their own purpose-built theatre. Hampstead’s problems, it seems, began when they exchanged their own supposedly temporary accommodations that they had operated out of for some 40 years, for their own purpose-built space. So it may be giving the Bush a poisoned chalice to ask them to inherit it, but Josie Rourke, who runs the Bush, is surely a possible candidate to run Hampstead now.