The Royal Shakespeare Company has been very much in the news over its decision to leave the Barbican. To mark the Barbican's 20th birthday (the arts center was opened by the Queen in 1982), Theatrenow visited artistic director Graham Sheffield to ask about his plans for the future.
The RSC's leaving has been a very high-profile event. Where does that leave the Barbican Theatre, and how will it affect its planning? "Well, although it's a major change, it has a silver lining in that I've got what, in my opinion, is the best stage in London, to play with! Also, it isn't a complete severance in that I hope the RSC will still play an eight-to-ten-week season here every year, so there will be a continuity of association between the company and the venue, even if the relationship is a very different one."
There are various arts events planned over the next month or so to mark the Barbican's 20th anniversary, but there doesn't seem to be anything specifically theatrical — a selection of scenes from the best plays of the last two decades. "That's right, and on one level it is a shame, but the negotiations with the RSC have taken a great deal of time and energy, and there are a lot of other celebrations — music and film, for example."
What plans have you regarding future programming of the theatre? "I look forward to spreading BITE over a longer period each year. It will be easier for audiences if they can see the best in contemporary international theatre - and the 'I' in BITE is the essential part of it - over a longer period; they won't have to fit all their international theatregoing into a relatively short space of time." Given that a lot of the plays that are featured in BITE are, by definition, in a foreign language, how do you make them accessible to British audiences? "Mainly through the use of surtitles — as they do for operas at Covent Garden, for example. Although if a play is very well known — Hamlet for example — then we tend to take the view that people know the play in any case and we do without the subtitles which, though usually helpful, can still distract from the action on stage at times."
Apart from expanding BITE, what other shows would you like to see at the Barbican? "I'd like to see some classics to balance the Shakespeare that we are expecting from the RSC's shorter residency and the new plays that are the staple of BITE."
And what about the immediate future of the Barbican Theatre? "We are going to close for a while in order to carry out essential 'housework' repairs and maintenance to the building, which is why BITE will run rather later this year — press details will be released soon — and then it will be a case of looking out for the 2003 season, which involves myself and my team scouting around the world for new companies, new talent. Though we also do this rather closer to home, at Edinburgh."
—By Paul Webb atTheatrenow