Josie Rourke: ‘If Shakespeare was alive now he’d be under commission to Nica Burns’

As You Like It comes to London’s new venue @sohoplace this winter. The play’s director and the theatre’s owner discuss arts cuts, the industry’s gender balance and the pandemic

Arifa Akbar: Nica, what led you to open a new purpose-built theatre in the West End?

Nica Burns: I was invited to meet Derwent plc who were regenerating a neglected corner of Soho. I didn’t realise I was being auditioned but a year later I signed an agreement to be their theatre partner. It’s immediately above three tube lines: if you drill a hole from the centre of the stage downwards, you would be standing on the Elizabeth line platform. The interior design was inspired by a moment I had as a young actor at Epidaurus in Greece, my mother’s homeland. I remember the last golden rays of the sun coming through the trees – I could see stars twinkling in an indigo sky.

Josie Rourke: I looked at the plans for the theatre and peer reviewed it. There’s not a bad seat in the house but something more profound is going on. This is a theatre in the heart of the West End. You look at those auditoria and as beautiful as they are, they talk about status. This talks about democracy. Nica’s Greekness is a part of that. It took me back to my roots. Most of the stuff I saw growing up was at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. It has grace notes of that extraordinary auditorium – the closeness and embrace.

The new theatre @sohoplace, which opened with a production of the play Marvellous.
The new theatre @sohoplace, which opened with a production of the play Marvellous. Photograph: Sarah Lee/the Guardian

The most significant thing I probably did in my life as an artistic director was to open the new Bush theatre. I rented a flat opposite and my parents came down from Salford to help me at the weekends. They were quite instrumental in building the bar – that was the only way they could see me. It’s an amazing, glorious haul to get it done – and Nica’s achieved that.

AA: Why stage As You Like It here?

JR: There’s a warmth to this auditorium that made me think about falling in love. I would also say that As You Like It was written as a commercial play. We forget that Shakespeare made a ton of money. It’s worth looking at Henslowe’s diary, which kept an account of everything. You see plays being turned around incredibly rapidly. Sometimes we think Shakespeare was a subsidised playwright, and that if he lived now he’d be on commission to the Royal Court. He would not – he’d be under commission to Nica Burns.

Josie Rourke at the Bush in 2008.
Josie Rourke at the Bush in 2008. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/the Guardian

AA: How do you feel about the industry’s gender balance? Nica, are you still the only woman in the boardroom?

NB: I was, but it’s much better. I have never had less than a 50-50 gender balance in my management team. When there’s a female employer, a lot of women find it easier to step forward. One thing that was said to me by another producer was: “You’ve never even thought there was something called the glass ceiling.” I would say to everybody who feels disadvantaged: “Throw out the idea of a glass ceiling and go for it.” I’m not saying there won’t be obstacles but if you think only about those and not what you want to achieve …

When I started, the people who gave the opportunities were all men. Now we have women in positions where they can help other women.

JR: It was pretty much all white men running theatres when I was a young director, although there were women who inspired me – Phyllida Lloyd, Deborah Warner, Katie Mitchell, Marianne Elliott. I look at the people running our theatres now and feel that there has been enormous change. You must feel massively positive about that. But when the media thinks about who should be representing theatre when a big event [like the pandemic] occurs, I just want them to phone Lynette [Linton] rather than Nick [Hytner] – not that Nick isn’t amazing, he’s the most brilliant spokesperson for theatre and we completely need his voice. But the point about cultural leadership is that it has to be visible otherwise you don’t see big scale change.

AA: Has the industry come a long way on the whole?

JR: It’s definitely got a lot better, and we are definitely not there. We need to keep saying to ourselves: “not good enough”. The big thing for me, especially since the pandemic, is about working conditions. I get what Nica’s saying about the glass ceiling but there are practical issues around the workplace and how solid a job it is across the industry.

NB: But it’s always going to be a bit like that, Josie, because ultimately it’s a freelance occupation. People fell through the cracks [during the pandemic] because they didn’t have employment contracts, so they couldn’t go on furlough. There was no mechanism to support people. That’s why the theatre industry got so badly hit.

Nica Burns in Edinburgh during the fringe festival in 2011.
Nica Burns in Edinburgh during the fringe festival in 2011. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

JR: One of the things the pandemic has done is engineered enormous anxiety around money. What I would like to see is a simple code of conduct with straightforward things such as paying people on time, which I know causes enormous stress among creative teams. Just paying attention to the small details that become large problems in a freelance career … Otherwise you’re going to close off routes of access to people from the kinds of backgrounds that we should be seeking to reach.

NB: The pandemic has been the economic equivalent of world war three ­– remember, the UK government only recently paid off the debt incurred by the second world war – and it has had a deep emotional and mental health impact. We are still in a period of recovery and I think we need to talk about this more. Everyone, worldwide, lost a lot of money from the lockdown. We took out £5m in a Coronavirus [Business Interruption] loan to keep the theatres going.

JR: I’ve missed theatre so much. The other thing for me [during the pandemic] was that I fell in love and ran away to the forest [from London to Suffolk] after meeting someone who lived on my street. It’s very As You Like It but it’s not just about me: there’s something in this play that asks: “What happens when you’re exiled, or forced to move from the space you’ve been occupying? What happens mentally and emotionally?” The next West End show I’m doing after this one [Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons by Sam Steiner] is a romantic and funny play but in a different way it asks: “How do we cope in an extreme? Can a relationship survive, adapt or even improve under such circumstances?” I’m hoping to open up space for a bit of reflection, but in the context of work that’s hugely enjoyable and really accessible.

AA: What did you feel when you heard about Arts Council England’s decision to cut the Donmar’s funding?

JR: I do not understand why you would not want this theatre to be part of the public conversation. It will have to make changes as an organisation in order to accommodate this cut but nobody wants to see those changes. I started there in 2000 [as assistant director] and it was my first proper job in theatre. I assisted Phyllida [Lloyd], out of which the Shakespeare Trilogy was born. I assisted Nick Hytner, I assisted Sam Mendes, I assisted Michael Grandage. I saw those directors at the top of their game and used the skills I learned in that theatre to drive the conversation on about new work as well as the canon. Some of the excellence and brilliance of the Donmar lives on in those who go to run other buildings. The cut is very puzzling. It removes the Donmar from the public conversation.

AA: Nica, how might the ACE cuts affect commercial theatre?

NB: The bottom line is that most of the theatre industry is funded by private individuals – people get confused about the balance between the subsidised and commercial sectors, the latter of which comprises 75-80% of the British industry. But crucially, the development of the next generation of talent – from directors to designers, actors and particularly writers – is delivered by the subsidised sector and it makes an incalculable contribution to the theatre industry.

The creation of the Arts Council was the most amazing thing, postwar, and it has generated some incredible schemes, particularly in playwriting. We produce more successful playwrights than any other country. We have developed an infrastructure over a long, long time and everybody has benefited from that – it doesn’t matter what part of the theatre you’re in. Take the Royal Court, for example, and the support it creates in young writers’ schemes. Look at the writers that come through these schemes and go on to bigger institutions like the National Theatre and then into TV, film and commercial theatre. It’s a great ecology. Don’t destroy it!

The Arts Council have been told [by the government] to shift away from London and they have done so. But what is most shocking to me is how brutal it has been to certain organisations. The Donmar, ENO and Hampstead theatre have had everything taken away. Completely cutting the funding of organisations, practically overnight, who ACE has supported for so long, is extremely tough and endangers their future: the boards, and artistic directors, have very little time to put things in place to save these organisations. There could have been a longer-term approach to levelling up.

  • As You Like It is at @sohoplace, London, 6 December-28 January. Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons is at the Harold Pinter theatre, London, from 18 January to 18 March. It then runs at Manchester Opera House (21-25 March) and Theatre Royal Brighton (28 March-1 April).


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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