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David Lan (Photo: Simon Annand)

Young Vic Artistic Director David Lan (Photo: Simon Annand)

Lyn Gardner on the Oliviers Special Award winner David Lan

By Lyn Gardner, Published April 6, 2018

Writing for the official Olivier Awards with Mastercard Brochure, renowned theatre critic and writer Lyn Gardner told us all about the remarkable tenure of this year’s Special Award winner, David Lan.

It would be hard to think of anyone who has done more to shape British theatre in recent times than David Lan who earlier this year left the Young Vic after 17 years at the helm.

Taking over the Young Vic at the start of the new century, when the former butcher’s shop on The Cut was in a state of physical disrepair and artistic uncertainty, Lan has steered the theatre through a hugely sympathetic refurbishment and creative regeneration. He transformed the rackety space into a theatre whose doors always feel as if they are standing wide open and inviting you in.

You’d be a fool not to accept the invitation. Under Lan the Young Vic has become an enticing, much-loved producing theatre which operates both as a playground for innovation but also a place that feels like home to both theatre-makers and audiences. It encourages young artists to be bolder, and also thinks to offer a chair to those waiting in the returns queue for a sold-out show.

Lan’s appointment was unexpected. He had directed little. He had not spent a career climbing the ladder that can lead to the artistic directorship of a major theatre. But he had experienced an awful lot of life, the early part of it in a troubled South Africa divided by apartheid.

He’d tried his hand at acting, and had written a number of fine and complex plays for leading theatres from the RSC to the Royal Court. At the latter, he had been writer in residence so seeing close hand how a theatre operated. He had also trained as an anthropologist and worked in the field in Zimbabwe, and subsequently producing a number of documentaries for the BBC.

He might have joked to one interviewer that being held captive by ex-freedom fighters in Zimbabwe tended to make Young Vic production meetings feel like a doddle in comparison, but perhaps it was not just fearlessness but also Lan’s insider/outsider status that has allowed him to rethink both the role of the artistic director and how to run a theatre receiving public investment. He’s a theatre enthusiast, but also a people enthusiast, infinitely curious about other people’s lives and thinking.

A born internationalist, Lan has turned the Young Vic into one of the most exciting and theatres in the world. It’s a place that under Lan has looked outwards, not inwards; thought big, not small, and which however improbable the proposition has tried to say yes, not no.

Lan’s own enthusiasm for theatre and for prodding what it might be, and how it can be a vehicle to have a conversation about the contrary, messy world around us, has created an eclectic body of work that has won awards and enriched thousands of people’s lives.

From marvels such as Susan Stroman’s production of The Scottsboro Boys to The Jungle, about the clearance of the Calais refugee camp, Lan has supported season after season that has delivered both surprises and hits, often in the same package.

Lan has made the Young Vic a theatre where you find yourself leaning a little further forward in your seat to catch the wonders of Billie Piper playing Yerma in Simon Stone’s radical reimagining or Yerma, or feel the agony of Mark Strong’s Eddie Carbone in Ivo van Hove’s A View From The Bridge. Or being blindsided by hearing Feels Like Teen Spirit in Chekhov’s Three Sisters directed by Benedict Andrews.

Billie Piper in Yerma at the Young Vic (Photo: Johan Persson)

Billie Piper in Yerma at the Young Vic (Photo: Johan Persson)

Under Lan, the Young Vic has been a place to catch a glimpse of the future of British theatre. Aided by associate artistic director Sue Emmas, he has supported and furthered the careers of Joe Hill-Gibbins, Carrie Cracknell, Natalie Abrahami and Beijan Sheibani amongst many. Lan’s Young Vic tenure has always reminded that the best artistic directors are enablers of others’ ambitions, not their own.

If we judge a theatre by the quality of the work that it produces on its stages, then the Young Vic is up there with the very best. But there are many different kinds of risk in theatre, and a 21st century theatre with public investment has to be about more than great shows, and West End and New York transfers. It has to find a greater purpose.

Lan has ensured that the Young Vic has had just that, whether it’s been reinventing classics or creating work with its local community through the participatory strand, Taking Part, run by Imogen Brodie. It has supported numerous artists and companies including Belarus Free Theatre and Good Chance Theatre. One of the things that Lan has shown is that a theatre’s policy is forged by who you work with and how you value them.

While some other theatres have struggled to put diversity into action, the Young Vic has put it centre stage with productions such as Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun, Tarell Alvin McCrany’s The Brothers Size, the adult fairy tale Beauty And The Beast with Mat Fraser, and Charlene James’ Cuttin’ It, about female genital mutilation.

Through co-founding What Next?, a national initiative which encourages arts organisations to have meaningful conversations around culture and build relationships, Lan has looked forwards not backwards, and helped theatre to keep questioning its role in testing times. There is one question that all of us, who have been so entertained, tickled, surprised and provoked by him over the last 17 years, long to have an answer to: what will David Lan do next?

Find out more about the Olivier Awards with Mastercard here.

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