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RSC at 50: Celebrate good times

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To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stanley Wells takes a trip down memory lane to remind us how the RSC has helped shape British theatre, and highlights its many examples of artistic excellence by turning the spotlight on one great performance from each of its five decades

I’ve been in on the Royal Shakespeare Company since its beginnings in 1961. To look back at the list of plays it has presented is to read an extraordinary conspectus of the world’s drama, from classical times to the present. It reveals, too, the names of all – or almost all – of the finest British actors and directors working during that period.

An invitation to write briefly about one outstanding production from each decade of the company’s existence confronts me with perplexing problems of choice. But rather than waste space trying to explain the reasons for my decisions, let me plunge straight in by recalling the pleasures of the first of Peter Hall’s numerous engagements with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

His 1962 production was essentially a revival of one from the 1959 season, in which Charles Laughton had played Bottom, parodying the death throes of Olivier’s Richard III as he expired. It had exquisite designs by Lila De Nobili, in which gauzes representing the wooden screen of an Elizabethan great hall could melt away to reveal the mysterious interiors of the forest based on paintings of trees close to the Dirty Duck. Judi Dench and Ian Richardson were joyous as Titania and Oberon, speaking the verse with crackling intelligence and wit. And Ian Holm dashed hither and thither as a mercurial Puck, eyes flickering mischievously and tongue darting in and out of his mouth like a lizard’s.

Paul Hardwick, one of the RSC’s stalwarts for many years, took over from Laughton as a ripely, genial Bottom. The music director at this time was Raymond Leppard, who made a special arrangement of the National Anthem which was played to a standing audience from the orchestra pit before the curtain – yes, curtain – went up. His lovely setting of the lullaby had been recorded by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

In a witty touch, Oberon’s men kidnapped and whisked away the First Fairy who stood sentinel over Titania’s bower. And the fairy attending to Titania was Margaret Drabble, whose husband, Clive Swift, played Snug. Some years later, the production was turned into a film in the rain-soaked grounds of Compton Verney.

The year 1970 saw Peter Brook’s iconic A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and to me, this decade is memorable especially for a series of productions by John Barton, which included the no less ground-breaking Richard II of 1974, with two of our finest verse-speakers, Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco, alternating as Richard and Bolingbroke. There was no lack of wit and humour in Barton’s productions of the comedies, but he brought to them also a deep understanding of their emotional complexity.

His 1976 Much Ado About Nothing was set, improbably but hilariously, in the Indian Raj and John Woodvine’s irresistible, if politically incorrect, Indian Dogberry offered a wholly fresh interpretation of the role. Judi Dench, who played Beatrice to Donald Sinden’s virilely warm-hearted Benedick, softened the character’s asperities by picking up on the text’s suggestions that Beatrice and Benedick had had a love affair in the past. This was part and parcel of her portrayal of Beatrice as a woman of some maturity, of a wisdom born of not entirely happy experience.

The bawdy comedy of the scene (3.4) with her girlfriends, in which she has a cold, was as funny as I have ever seen it, but the ground bass of seriousness had been sounded at the end of the second deception scene, when she emerged from hiding after hearing herself criticised and said:

“What fire is in mine ears?

“Can this be true?

“Stand I condemned for pride and scorn so much?”

With a tenderness that did not deny an element of self-mockery, Dench showed that this was a response to a learning experience, that Beatrice was a wiser woman at the end of the scene than she had been at its beginning.

A major event in the RSC’s history was the opening in 1986 of the Swan Theatre, a more intimate playing space than the main house, which rapidly won the hearts of both actors and audiences. The original idea behind it was to provide a venue for performances of plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, but one of the earliest successes there was Deborah Warner’s harrowing 1987 Titus Andronicus. The play had been generally despised and derided as a ludicrous piece of over-rhetorical sensationalism until 1955, when Brook had shown in the Memorial Theatre that, with Laurence Olivier in the title role, it could provide a vehicle for a star performance of great magnitude. But Brook cut close to a quarter of the text.

The triumph of Warner’s production, in which Brian Cox played Titus with stunning virtuosity, was to show that the complete text can be made to work if it is sensitively handled. The staging was austerely simple. Inappropriate laughter was avoided by the exploitation of all the genuine comedy that lies beneath the play’s surface. Brook had totally omitted the long, artificially rhetorical speech in which Marcus approaches and addresses the traumatised Lavinia, who has been raped and horribly mutilated.

In Warner’s production, spoken by Donald Sumpter, it became a deeply moving attempt, enacted as it were outside time, to master the facts, and thus to survive the shock, of a previously unimagined horror. Cox displayed ever-increasing intensity of suffering, up to the mirthless laughter with which he spoke the line:

“Why, I have not another tear to shed.”

This came to seem Lear-like in its impact. Even the final scene, in which Titus serves up Tamora’s sons to her baked in a pie, held the audience spellbound as one death followed another in bewilderingly rapid succession. This was creative directing of the highest calibre.

From 1986 onwards, the RSC was able to spread its wings in three very different spaces – the main house, the Swan, and the Other Place. A consequence was an expansion of the repertory to include a higher proportion of non-Shakespearean plays of many different periods. The Swan proved especially hospitable to the subtleties of Chekhov. Simon Russell Beale was an unforgettable Konstantin in Terry Hands’ 1990 production of The Seagull, and five years later Adrian Noble directed there a lyrically beautiful Cherry Orchard in which Penelope Wilton sailed majestically through the role of Madame Ranyevskaya. “I eat crocodiles,” she said, imitating the snapping of their jaws with her hands as she did so.

Noble directed the play on a simple set using subtle and evocative lighting and sound effects, and achieving a chamber music-like interplay among its characters. David Troughton’s well-meaning but crassly philistine Lopakhin contrasted with Alec McCowen’s aristocratic insouciance as Gaev. Perhaps the most touching performance came from Peter Copley as Firs, anticipating his inevitable casting as Silence in Michael Attenborough’s fine Henry IV Part II of a few years later. Firs’ long, slow descent of the staircase at the side of the stage into the now silent house from which all the people he loved had departed brought the production to a deeply touching conclusion.

In the most recent decade of the RSC’s work, too, the Swan has provided the setting for some of its finest productions. I think of the first versions of Michael Boyd’s productions of the early histories, of Dominic Cooke’s The Winter’s Tale and Pericles, which used the space in fascinatingly original ways, and of the series of plays by dramatists contemporary with Shakespeare, including Ben Jonson – who would have thought that Sejanus could be made to work at all, let alone as excitingly as it was in Greg Doran’s production?

It’s hard to pass over Doran’s All’s Well That Ends Well, in which Dench vied with memories of Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft in the role of the Countess. But since a choice must be made, I alight on the same director’s splendid Antony and Cleopatra of 2006 which – like Noble’s Other Place version with Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon in 1982 – showed that, given actors who can match up to the play’s linguistic splendours, its vast imaginative scope and geographical range do not need to be matched by scenic grandeur. A map of the ancient world set into the back wall of the theatre was enough to put the audience’s imaginations to work.

Harriet Walter encompassed Cleopatra’s ever-shifting moods with mercurial skill, and Patrick Stewart matched her as a grizzled Mark Antony who struggled in vain to be free from her thraldom. Here, as often, Doran displayed his rare capacity to make a play speak from within, to draw out its range of meanings without the imposition of intellectualised interpretation. But this does not imply an absence of psychological depth. John Hopkins, one of the finest Shakespearean actors to emerge in recent years, offered a deeply internalised Octavius Caesar, neurotically involved with his sister Octavia, forcing himself against all his natural instincts to participate in the drunken revels on Pompey’s barge.

As the RSC enters its sixth decade, it has at its disposal two thrust stages – the new one in the refurbished main house, and the smaller in the Swan. What will become of the temporary Courtyard is as yet unannounced. Its nucleus is the former Other Place, and many playgoers hope that will be restored. The RSC has a great past – may its future be no less great.

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