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Unwin's up for Rose challenge
Last week's news that Sir Peter Hall is handing over day-to-day running of the Rose Theatre to artistic director Stephen Unwin was unexpected to say the least.
The timing - just days after the theatre's offical opening - was definitely off. But Hall's choice of replacement is not.
Unwin may not be a household name but the 48-year-old is one of Britain's most experienced directors with three decades' work behind him, not least at English Touring Theatre (ETT), the production company behind Uncle Vanya.
After 16 years at ETT, Unwin was ready to go freelance when Hall rang and offered him the Rose job. "I didn't leave ETT to come here," stresses Unwin, "but when this came up, I just couldn't not have a go. Physically, I think this is the most remarkable theatre in Britain."
Unwin has been involved behind the scenes since last autumn but his links with Hall goes back to the early 80s, when he was directing the likes of Tilda Swinton and Stephen Fry in student productions at Cambridge University.
Hall, then artistic director of the National Theatre, invited Unwin to a meeting and gave him work at his new National Theatre Studio. Now, the relationship has come full circle.
As Hall said at last week's press conference: "Because he's come, I can stay." Hall will concentrate on directing plays, while Unwin takes over administrative duties and looking after the bigger picture.
"The challenges of this are enomous," admits the newcomer. "This extraordinary building, which has been built by the local authority and the university with fantastic provision, impressive investment and care, and love, we are trying to make work without any public funding. We can pull it off but we need a lot of support."
Above all, that support needs to be financial. The theatre's estimates its annual running costs at £600,000, most of which must be generated through ticket sales. And to attract an audience, Unwin knows the Rose must offer something different to the West End and its nearest Richmond rivals.
"At the heart of this place should be a theatre that produces its own work," he says. "I know for a fact that three quarters of the acting profession live about 20 minutes from here and I think this can be a place where the top of the profession can come and work. But that's not going to take up 52 weeks a year. I also want to make it a place where the best touring companies can come and create work."
He also shares Hall's plans for a direct partnership with Kingston University and hopes to make the Rose a more general centre for language, at a time when literacy levels in schools are worryingly low.
The cause is close to Unwin's heart - his son Joe has severe learning difficulties and may never be able to speak. "From Joe to Judi Dench" is his unoffical slogan for the theatre.
Born and raised in Kew, Unwin now lives with his family in Stoke Newington, which is, he admits, "a bit of a schelp" from Kingston. Even so, he feels he has good grasp of the south-west London and Surrey audience from taking ETT shows to Richmond and Guildford in the past.
"I think it's a fantastic audience - broad and broad minded, intelligent and cultured, but without being elitist and snooty," he says.
"That's what I care about, too, so I think that In time, will he direct plays here, too? "I'd love to," he replies. "But my short term ambition is to make the place work. If we can pull it off - secure a loyal audience, secure enough money - then I will be doing my job.
Unwin continues: "If everybody gets behind us,putting out a good vibe, turning up and making it part of the life of this town, we'll pull this off."