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
Published in January 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.