After years of decline and mismanagement, the Royal Shakespeare Company is staking it all on a cycle of the complete works. But is it now too late to regain the one principle that gave the RSC meaning—a national ensemble of actors working in contemporary theatre through the Shakespearean example?by Michael Coveney / January 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
In April 2006, and for the subsequent 12 months, the Royal Shakespeare Company will stage the biggest festival in its history, the “Complete Works,” which will bring all 37 Shakespeare plays to Stratford-upon-Avon, 15 of them produced by the RSC itself. These will include Ian McKellen as Lear, Judi Dench in a musical version of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Patrick Stewart in The Tempest and an entire cycle of the history plays. The remainder of the plays will be performed by visiting companies: among them a Hamlet from South Africa, an Edinburgh festival co-production of Troilus and Cressida, a Japanese Titus Andronicus, an Iraqi Richard III and Twelfth Night in Russian.
It sounds like quite a party, and might seem to represent a triumphal declaration by the RSC after a period of uncertainty in its artistic policy and managerial affairs. But it might equally be an attempt to fill out a vacuum of meaning at the heart of the company. The RSC has in recent years been dragged down by the weight of its own history, and the “Complete Works” is likely to heap that weight back on to itself. There is something about the extravaganza that smacks of desperate grandiosity, a diversion from the question: what exactly is the RSC for?
What it isn’t needed for, not nowadays, is to give us the best of the bard. The National, the Globe, even the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, regional theatres in Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester—all stage productions of Shakespeare as good as the RSC’s. Nor, despite the acronym, was it ever intended to be just a national showcase of the plays. What it was in fact meant to be was stated in Peter Hall’s founding policy of 1960: a company committed to Shakespeare in the context of contemporary playwriting, and a society of actors bound by this common purpose. This was an idea inspired by the European ensemble model of a state-subsidised company of actors working together for long periods (notably the Berliner Ensemble of Bertolt Brecht), and the influential criticism of the Polish academic Jan Kott who insisted that Shakespeare was “our contemporary.” Hall secured a London base for the company at the Aldwych Theatre and issued his core 16 actors with three-year contracts. He produced Shakespeare alongside Harold Pinter, John Whiting and controversial experimental seasons led by the iconoclastic genius Peter Brook and his American acolyte Charles Marowitz. The RSC was created as a living contemporary theatre, not a heritage institution.
Forty-five years later, all that remains is “accessibility” jargon, sponsorship-talk and royalties from Les Misérables (first presented by Hall’s successor, Trevor Nunn, in a co-production at the Barbican Theatre in 1985). The RSC’s main priority is keeping the ship afloat—and the ship grew very big during the expansionism of the Nunn era. But the rot really set in with Adrian Noble’s reign—he was only the RSC’s fourth artistic director, after Hall, Nunn and Terry Hands—with madcap plans for “a Shakespeare village,” the withdrawal from the Barbican in 2002, the cynical pursuit of financial support from US universities, and the almost total fragmentation of a coherent acting ensemble engaged in an idealistic enterprise.
How and why did this happen? Shakespeare was born and died in Stratford-upon-Avon nearly 400 years ago, but the idea of turning the Warwickshire market town into a national shrine is quite recent. In 1847, the purchase of the poet’s house for the nation prompted calls for a permanent theatre in his honour and, thanks to the Flower brewing family, the neo-Gothic Shakespeare Memorial Theatre opened in 1879. This was destroyed by fire in 1926 and the present theatre was erected on an adjacent riverside site in 1932. The new theatre has been a source of frustration to successive RSC directors on account of its cinema-style interior and unforgiving proscenium stage, demanding the sort of lungs, experience and technique increasingly rare among a modern generation of actors.
In 1944, Fordham Flower became chairman of the Memorial Theatre, the fourth consecutive member of his family to hold that position, and Stratford began to assert its reputation as a serious producing house rather than just a summer festival. It was from this period that the ambition grew to create a permanent company with homes in Stratford and London. And so in 1960, Peter Hall and Fordham Flower established the RSC. The Memorial Theatre in Stratford was renamed the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 1961 and the company acquired the Aldwych as its London outlet, later moving to the Barbican.
No sooner had it been born, however, than the RSC faced opposition from the National Theatre lobby. The RSC was the upstart in a race to create the defining British theatre company. Laurence Olivier’s National would, he claimed, offer a spectrum of international drama and become the “finest in the world.” As it turned out, neither the National nor the RSC would succeed in creating a working British ensemble. After the initial few years, the NT failed in this respect because it is not a company at all: it achieves its current successes by employing actors on an ad hoc basis. The RSC, which once might have claimed to be the finest ensemble in the world, resembles a coherent company only very rarely and suffers from wildly unpredictable standards of performance.
Nevertheless, the RSC now does almost as well in terms of subsidy as the more confident National. In 2004-05, the RSC received £13.9m in grants from the Arts Council, representing 45 per cent of its overall annual income of £29.4m, with £12.1m coming from the box office and the rest in sponsorship. The NT meanwhile receives £16.3m in Arts Council subsidy, about 40 per cent of its annual income of £41.2m, with box office receipts of £13.5m.
But the very fact that Hall’s RSC forced its way into the reckoning in the first place proves the zeal of its conception. This was an idea for a modern way of doing theatre, and not merely a scheme for institution-building. In 1962, Hall was joined at Stratford by Peter Brook and Clifford Williams. Brook directed Paul Scofield in King Lear, a milestone production which created a modern link with the bleak nihilism of Samuel Beckett. Williams directed a production of The Comedy of Errors which was promptly identified by Kenneth Tynan as the first real bona fide RSC show. There followed the groundbreaking Wars of the Roses sequence, relating Shakespeare to modern power politics and Brechtian design principles, and the definitive modern Hamlet (in 1965) with David Warner, the first spotty student prince in a tradition of Victorian melancholic nobility.
Trevor Nunn, who succeeded Hall in 1968, had earlier made his mark at the RSC with his 1966 revival of Cyril Tourneur’s Jacobean masterpiece, The Revenger’s Tragedy, starring Alan Howard, Ian Richardson and Patrick Stewart. The challenge of Nunn’s artistic directorship was to attract some of the new energy coming from the fringe. With hindsight, we can see that Nunn’s one big failure—in an overall campaign of success—was not to bring any leading new dramatists on to the RSC main stage. It was here that the RSC ceased to be a single idea. Nunn created two smaller venues, the Other Place in Stratford and the Warehouse in Covent Garden (now the Donmar Warehouse), where new directors and writers were in effect sidelined while he and Terry Hands (who became joint artistic director in 1978) concentrated on evolving a “classical” company based in Shakespeare and—less frequently than was good for the company—the wider Elizabethan and Jacobean repertoire.
What emerged was a fatal split between Shakespeare and new work that applies to this day, however much the RSC may try to disguise the problem with new work festivals and “outreach” projects. Fragmentation and factionalism set in, with some RSC associate directors—Howard Davies, Ron Daniels and Bill Alexander—avoiding Shakespeare while keeping a new plays policy going in the Warehouse and, once the Barbican opened, the pitiful Pit.
By the time Trevor Nunn left the RSC in 1986—having overseen the creation of a third Stratford auditorium, the neo-Elizabethan Swan—the company had virtually abandoned the trademark actor-based approach in favour of Broadway-style “enhanced” physical presentation, powered by new technology and a new breed of scenographers. The company moved into the Barbican in 1982, and the schism within it became explicit with the opening in 1985 of Les Misérables, directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird (but produced, in effect, by the commercial impresario Cameron Mackintosh). While a huge popular hit opened on the Barbican main stage, a season of plays by Howard Barker, brilliantly acted by “another” RSC company led by Ian McDiarmid and Harriet Walter, was hidden away in the tiny Pit theatre. Les Misérables, to be fair, was a summation of the popular style Nunn and Caird had first developed with Nicholas Nickleby in 1980, scripted by David Edgar. But that style broke off from the RSC yet another piece of its increasingly fragmented identity. Edgar, meanwhile, was the only contemporary writer to prosper on the main stage in this period and his Maydays (1983), which monitored the end of the 1960s revolutionary spirit, also signalled the RSC’s own adieu to the age of dissent.
After Nunn’s departure, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify a driving idea, or an ensemble of actors, behind the RSC. The third phase of the company’s gradual decline set in during the period first of Terry Hands and then of Adrian Noble. This is not to say that there weren’t some extraordinary productions and performances, including Kenneth Branagh’s Stratford debut as Henry V, Antony Sher’s crutch-swivelling Richard III, Michael Gambon’s Lear and the remarkable transition made by Simon Russell Beale from playing restoration fops to Shakespearean second leads. But under Adrian Noble, the RSC would come to lose not only its foothold in London, but also—partly as a result of this—its soul.
The third-era directors—Sam Mendes, Nicholas Hytner, Steven Pimlott and Noble himself—were not associated with the leading new writers. Spotting this early on, and launching a vitriolic campaign against the RSC, playwright David Hare in 1997 bemoaned “the growth of an increasingly obtrusive directocracy, few of whom seem to feel much responsibility to the writers of their own period.” The importance of this failure was twofold. Not only were large amounts of public money now funding an institution that had cut loose from contemporary theatre, but the Shakespearean pool, lacking an inflow of fresh ideas, was becoming increasingly stagnant.
Now, however, the RSC was an institution no one was prepared to see close down. When, four years ago, I advocated a return to basics—complete closure, followed by a slimmed-down renewal of the company in Stratford alone with two directors (say, Deborah Warner and Declan Donnellan), two or three writers, as many of the stage staff as were necessary and a full-time company of 20 actors—there were howls of outrage, and Adrian Noble refused to discuss the matter on BBC radio if I was in the same studio with him. At the Shakespeare birthday civic lunch in Stratford two years ago, I was invited to propose a toast and reiterated some of these views. The distinguished scholar Stanley Wells, then vice-chairman of the RSC, branded me “a traitor.” But a traitor to what, or to whom?
Adrian noble’s influence grew in the late 1980s after he was identified by Terry Hands as a possible future boss. His 1988 production of The Plantagenets starring Ralph Fiennes clinched his status and proved yet again that the history plays always reassert, for a time, the RSC’s raison d’être. But having taken over from Hands as artistic director in 1991, he began to create a smog of confusion. As early as 1995, Noble was saying he would vacate the Barbican for at least six months of the year and concentrate on touring and on Stratford. The Stratford season of 1996-97 started in November and ran through to August—thus ensuring maximum exposure during the leanest, wintriest, most visitor-free months of the year. This foolishness was compounded by a disastrous residency in Plymouth and the decision to move the traditional Newcastle season forward from January to September against the host theatre’s wishes (regional theatres want to get off to a flying start with their own work at that time of year).
American philanthropy has always supported the RSC. But under Noble, the cynicism of begging from US institutions became embarrassingly apparent. John Barton’s long-simmering Tantalus project, directed by Peter Hall, played for three months in Denver in 2000. Soon afterwards, the RSC announced a five-year relationship with the University of Ann Arbor at Michigan and a residency at Davidson College in North Carolina. There might have been an element of academic exchange in this, but it was really just for the money. At the same time, the company’s first ever managing director, Chris Foy, a theatre “virgin” recruited from Unilever, instigated redundancies without consulting company members. The decision to leave the Barbican became final in 2002 and the RSC then had to find expensive new offices in Covent Garden and theatres in London (west end managements were in no mood to do the RSC any favours). Actors within the company mutinied and arranged, virtually behind Noble’s back, a season in the west end courtesy of the producers Bill Kenwright and Thelma Holt. A disastrous season at the Roundhouse in north London was compounded by the folly of giving it a new cylindrical auditorium at a cost of £1m.
In 2001, Noble announced “Project Fleet,” describing it as “a new deal with artists and audiences.” This encompassed the Barbican withdrawal, shorter contracts for actors and a wider choice of venues. It was, in reality, a dismantlement of the RSC idea, including the planned destruction of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford. The cost of rebuilding was then estimated at £100m, of which the craven Arts Council promised £50m of lottery money. “We are a global brand,” Noble declared, and hired the literary agent Andrew Wylie to exploit the RSC acronym. It was alleged that the company had issued new contracts with “gagging orders” preventing staff from discussing its activities with anyone, including their own families.
A department of culture select committee, chaired by Gerald Kaufman, supported Noble’s plans, including the demolition of the RST. Noble continued to fight his corner and defend his policies even as the consequences came crashing around his ears. Terry Hands publicly disowned Noble’s strategy. RSC veterans Judi Dench and Donald Sinden said it was madness to pull down the Stratford theatre. The RSC’s patron, Prince Charles, said he was “strongly opposed” to the plans. And then, suddenly, in April 2002, having taken time out to direct the west end musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (thus ensuring his personal financial future on the back of its huge advance booking), Noble resigned. He was followed by Chris Foy in 2003, and, a year later, the late Lord Alexander, who received the utterly unwarranted tribute from his successor as chairman, Christopher Bland, that he had “steered the organisation through a turbulent period of change.” Michael Boyd, appointed to succeed Noble in 2003, was left to try to piece together a series of sensible plans.
Throughout this saga, the RSC was expected to continue trading. What everyone involved had forgotten was Michael Billington’s reminder that, “historically, the RSC has always been a creative idea masquerading as an institution.” Now it was exactly the other way round.
Michael Boyd’s job in the last two years has been to breath life into the original idea and the “Complete Works” is his response. In the meantime, he has already pulled things back from the brink, removing what the former RSC actress Juliet Stevenson called “the glass wall” between management and staff. Vikki Heywood, the ebullient former manager of the Royal Court, has been installed as executive director. Project Fleet has been ditched. The RST will remain standing, but will be closed for an extensive architectural overhaul, while the “Complete Works” will be housed, for the most part, in a temporary 1,000-seater theatre, the Courtyard, now being built as an extension to the Other Place. The company’s deficit has been wiped out by the implementation of a minimum risk model—cutting back on overheads wherever possible, from pencil sharpeners and taxi accounts to the brutality of no London transfers from Stratford in 2003—and Boyd is about to offer his first two-year contracts to actors. The ensemble ideal is at least being paid lip service once again.
But is it really possible for a meaningful RSC ensemble to function in a compromise with commercial theatre in London? In June 2005, the RSC announced a five-year deal with Cameron Mackintosh enabling it to present the Stratford season in one of the impresario’s seven west end venues. Thus last season’s Stratford comedies have opened at the newly refurbished Novello theatre (formerly the Strand). The wily, powerful Mackintosh will naturally retain the upper hand in the deal. The idea of the RSC being in the Barbican was that it was an alternative to the west end, to which it was rightly seen as anathema. Boyd, however, has described the move to the Novello as “good karma,” and told the Financial Times that the RSC presence in London would “bring an injection of a different kind of voice and rigour into the west end, which is the company’s historical role in London.” Well, yes and no. The whole point of the RSC was to be a classical ensemble company alive in the contemporary theatre, not an “alternative” component in the commercial sector.
There is some promise for the future buried in all this. Gregory Doran, Boyd’s chief rival for the top job, has stayed on as an associate director, lending intellectual muscle and considerable directing talent to projects such as the autumn’s Gunpowder season plays in the Swan. Meanwhile, the local Stratford technical plant—in-house wardrobe manufacture, scenery-building and on-stage operation —which is just about the best in Europe, has been motivated by Boyd’s careful ministrations since he took over. And there is a renewed sense of the RSC’s heart beating in Stratford once more. Last year’s open day, over the Birthday weekend, was a joyous and liberating experience for all who participated. Past RSC members returned to take part in workshops. RSC guru John Barton, a founding associate alongside Peter Hall, gave a magical illustrated lecture on the sonnets that spilled over into the rehearsal rooms. I sensed the actors really want to work and live in Stratford again. The new Courtyard might just transfer this verve and passion on to the stage where it rightly belongs.
But the fundamental question remains: what is special about theatre made by the RSC? Why should the taxpayer support a large-scale institution that is fighting to justify itself, rather than a newer, more radical one that a new Peter Hall might be hatching?
The French film and theatre director Patrice Chéreau has said that you should only do in the theatre what you cannot do anywhere else. This interrogation of the form, the sort of questioning Peter Brook still trains on his work in Paris, is a lost habit on the British stage. The future health of the RSC depends on how vigorously Michael Boyd is prepared to ask it of himself.
In september 2005, the Theatrevoice website hosted a discussion about Shakespeare, asking if the bard was a millstone round the neck of British culture. A particularly daft contribution came from the critic Miranda Sawyer, who described Troilus and Cressida as rubbish and mocked Ralph Fiennes’s performance as Mark Antony at the Barbican on the grounds that he was acting “in a Shakespearean way—just like Rigsby in Rising Damp.”
It is the job of the RSC to counteract this kind of ignorance and to remind us, for a start, that Troilus and Cressida is one of the great plays and has a special place in our recent century of genocidal war and political hypocrisy. Sawyer, though, was making one noteworthy observation, albeit unwittingly. The idea that both Ralph Fiennes and Rigsby in Rising Damp—played by the late, great Leonard Rossiter—can perform in a “Shakespearean” way is worth thinking about. It is a reminder that there is a level of performance which is different, and operates on another plane to the television soap naturalism now accepted as the acting norm. That again, is something the RSC has to address and understand.
Michael Boyd then stepped into the Theatrevoice discussion, dismissing Sawyer as blasé, and claiming that 100,000 young people see Shakespeare for the first time every year in Stratford. Boyd described Shakespeare as a bottomless source of pleasure, with the rhythm and lyricism of Beethoven, the music and passion of Ted Hughes, the clear-eyed metaphysics of Beckett, the stark beauty and humanity of Picasso, the wit of The Simpsons, the compassionate, paradoxical rigour of Philip Roth. He spoke too of Shakespeare’s courage in carving out coherence from a culture of darkness. “Velásquez was no more of a millstone around Picasso’s neck,” Boyd added, “than Shakespeare is around the neck of contemporary writers.”
In that last phrase Boyd touches on the only possible validation of the RSC: that it may create meaningful contemporary theatre through the Shakespearean example. Getting the force, scale and ambition of Shakespeare back into contemporary playwriting should be the RSC’s new stated aim, its main justification for continuing as a subsidised company. Once the complete works are done, and the circus has left town, that’s what needs to remain. No other company is in a position to do this, no other company is so spoilt for opportunity. One way to go about it would be to instigate a season of epic drama from Brecht to John Arden—to throw back at Shakespeare the modern writers he influenced most deeply, and then to commission ten contemporary playwrights under the age of 40 to follow suit, with large-scale productions to follow. They will have to present this season in Stratford, for I doubt very much that Cameron Mackintosh would want to play ball. What Mackintosh wants is RSC-branded bard for his west end tourist productions. And therein lies the real, self-inflicted handicap for the RSC’s future existence in London during its campaign of long-overdue recovery.