What is instantly striking about the initial programme for the Bridge theatre, Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starrâ€™s bold new venture, is the emphasis on new writing. Of the first eight shows announced on Wednesday, all but Julius Caesar are new works. Equally noticeable is that four of the premieres are by women and that there is a nod to gender-fluid casting by having Cassius played by Michelle Fairley. Given that Hytner was sometimes accused of not doing enough to advance the cause of women during his tenure at the National Theatre, this is refreshing.
The big question is what impact this new venture will have on the ecology of London theatre. It will obviously increase the fierce competition for new plays. At the moment, the National (three spaces), the Royal Court (two spaces), Hampstead theatre (two spaces) and the Bush (two spaces) are all in the market for new work as well as venues such as the Tricycle, Soho theatre, the Arcola and Southwark Playhouse. What the Bridge can offer is a flexible 900-seat theatre that should encourage writers to think big. At a time when the West End is increasingly a Broadway-like shop window for musicals and spectacular diversions, the existence of a new independent theatre devoted to plays is thoroughly to be welcomed.
Exciting as the new venture is, it makes me wonder what effect it will have on its Thames-side neighbour, the National. I recently attacked the National for its dilution of the classic repertory. I have since been assured that this is part of a bid to achieve greater gender equality and racial diversity and should not be taken as a sign that the classics are being abandoned. With the Bridge pumping out new work from this October, it makes it even more necessary for the National to explore the neglected riches of the past.
In the meantime, we can look forward to a mouth-watering programme. It is admittedly going to make it even tougher, in the face of such metropolitan glamour, for funds-starved regional theatres to attract top writers, actors and directors. But the prospect of seeing Rory Kinnear as Marx, Ben Whishaw as Brutus and Simon Russell Beale as JS Bach as well as experiencing new work by Lucy Prebble, Nina Raine, Sam Holcroft and Barney Norris whets the appetite. Where previous National Theatre directors such as Richard Eyre and Trevor Nunn have gone to pursue busy freelance careers, one hopes Hytner and Starr will create something of lasting value.