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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > Jan/Feb 2019 > A new direction

A new direction

Soap actor, serious playwright, and now artistic director. How Kwame Kwei-Armah broke through barriers to become theatre’s leading man. By Lyn Gardner
ILLUSTRATION BY TIM MCDONAGH

It’s early evening at the Young Vic. Kwame Kwei-Armah, the theatre’s new artistic director, strides across the packed bar. A young woman standing near me nudges her friend. “That’s Kwame,” she says, and there is genuine excitement in her voice.

Well-known actors in theatre bars elicit this kind of response, but artistic directors? Not often. Rufus Norris would pass pretty well unnoticed in the bar at the National, RSC supremo Greg Doran wouldn’t garner more than a glance from Stratford audiences. But Kwei-Armah commands attention. He reaches a man on the other side of the room and engulfs him in one of his signature bear hugs.

Kwei-Armah exudes a confidence which makes him look as if he owns the joint. But it’s a confidence that briefly abandoned him in February when he took over from David Lan, the artistic director who, over 18 years, had transformed the Young Vic into one of the UK’s most internationally feted theatres.

“The first day was so lonely,” Kwei-Armah tells me, when we meet in an upstairs room at the Young Vic. “The staff had been with David for many years and ‘daddy’ had left home. I was full of fear.” That fear led Kwei-Armah to start out by imitating his predecessor. Before taking up the role he had approached several writers and directors “who were very much in the vein of David. I had been going to myself ‘what has David done? Oh yes, David created this kind of work.’

“Then on 2nd February, after that lonely first day, I woke up and realised I was going down a false avenue. You die— or you live—by your own impulses rather than trying to follow somebody else’s impulses out of fear. So, I had to call those artists and say, ‘I’m so sorry, I know I said I’m going to produce your work, but I can’t.’”

“Were they cross?” I ask.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s January/February double issue: A host of writers and personalities explain what they think will be the most important thing we need to learn in the new year. From Justin Welby arguing for new emphasis on learning to forgive and Lord Neuberger on the importance of a free judiciary to Hannah Fry on AI and Cathy Newman on what happens next for #MeToo—Prospect has it all. Elsewhere in the issue: Fintan O’Toole looks at Brexit from an Irish perspective, Wendell Steavenson dishes the dirt on what really happens to the waste you want to recycle, Frank Close questions why—half a century after our last visit—we’ve not been back to the Moon. Also, Michael Blastland argues that we’re ignoring the upsides of having an alcoholic drink and Clive James explores the life of Philip Larkin.