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RSC at 50: Half a century and counting

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Mark Shenton looks back on the first 50 years of the Royal Shakespeare Company and looks forward to its future

Most theatre companies have their reputations and interests defined by artistic directors, who come and go. The National under Peter Hall was a theatre that embraced Alan Ayckbourn, both as a playwright and director. Under Richard Eyre, however, it became the home of choice of David Hare, Michael Frayn and Tom Stoppard. And under Nick Hytner, it is that of Alan Bennett. By the same token, the Almeida has become the de facto London home of American playwright Neil LaBute under Michael Attenborough. There are numerous other examples – running a theatre is all about relationship building, and buildings inevitably establish ongoing relationships that will change as their leaderships change.

But things are different at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where – regardless of who’s in charge – the work is inevitably defined by the playwright whose name is in its very title. The core repertoire always comprises the 36 plays of the First Folio, supplemented by other work to which he made contributions or ‘lost’ plays. Around him, the company also regularly explores the work of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and since (as the saying goes) Shakespeare is our contemporary, it also commissions current working playwrights to riff on Shakespearean plays and themes, like David Greig’s Dunsinane that offered a response and continuation to the Macbeth story.

But the RSC has also always been defined by something else – the accident of geography that saw its house playwright born and die in a small, sleepy Warwickshire town, whose closest big cities are Birmingham and Coventry, but around which an entire local industry has now grown, so much so that the motorway signs that greet you as you approach call it Shakespeare Country.

And a key part of that local industry is the theatre that stands at its centre, on a site that has been in theatrical use since the original Shakespeare Memorial Theatre was built back in 1879. Most of that original building burnt down in 1926, to be replaced by Elisabeth Scott’s art deco-influenced ‘jam factory’ building six years later that has stood ever since.

That operated in various incarnations on a festival schedule that only ran for parts of the year until a thrusting young director called Peter Hall took it over in 1959 and announced his intention to create a permanent, year-round company there. Thus was born the Royal Shakespeare Company, which was formally established in 1961, and the theatre itself renamed the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

Hall also announced his plan to create a London home for the company, which was duly established at the West End’s Aldwych Theatre. As Michael Billington has said: “Looking back, it is difficult to realise just how radical Hall’s dream was at the time or indeed how much opposition there was to the creation of what became officially known in March 1961 as the Royal Shakespeare Company.”

Some of the opposition, certainly to its presence in London, was actually led by Laurence Olivier and the National Theatre that Hall would later famously run. The National was then itself in its own fledgling years as Olivier established its prototype, first outside London at Chichester, then at the Old Vic, before moving to its own purpose-built home on the South Bank in 1976. The RSC, meanwhile, would also go on to get its own London home built for it, to its own specifications, within the Barbican Centre, to which it moved in 1982.

By then, the RSC also had second stages in both Stratford and London, with the establishment of the 140-seat Other Place in Stratford in 1974, and taking a lease on the Warehouse (now the Donmar Warehouse) in London in 1977. With the move to the Barbican, the RSC was able to consolidate both its London theatres under one roof. But meanwhile it had also added the Swan, a 430-seat thrust stage, galleried space created in 1986 out of parts of the surviving original 1879 theatre, as a third auditorium at Stratford.

So, in the space of just 25 years since its formation, the RSC had quickly become a theatrical industry all of its own, now running five theatres full time, split over two centres. But there were problems, too, not just now of size, but of the suitability of the spaces they inhabited. The Stratford main house home had been inherited, and the RSC quickly became disaffected with its Barbican base, much of which was subterranean, including its studio Pit Theatre, buried in the basement of the arts complex and only accessible by lift or a pedestrian staircase that crossed a service road leading to the car parks.

The artistic leadership, too, started taking its eye off the ball at the time. Trevor Nunn, who had succeeded Hall as artistic director in 1968, was increasingly away supervising commercial productions elsewhere, like Cats and Starlight Express that were entirely unrelated to the RSC. But he also used the RSC to launch its greatest-ever commercial success, Les Miserables that he co-directed with John Caird and was co-produced with Cameron Mackintosh at the Barbican in 1985, which led to more commitments for Nunn as he was called upon to supervise its foreign transfers.

Nunn, who had been joined by Terry Hands as co-artistic director in 1978, ceded the running of the company to Hands alone in 1986 and more difficult years followed, not least when Hands tried, and failed, to mimic his predecessor’s track record on musicals by launching a stage musical version of Stephen King’s Carrie at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1988, which then transferred to Broadway later the same year where it promptly crashed and burned, closing after just five performances from its opening night there. At a cost of more than $7 million to the RSC’s commercial partners, it was the most costly musical disaster up to then.

But the damage to the RSC wasn’t so much financial as reputational – having created what has become one of the world’s most successful ever musicals, it proved in one stroke that it could also be responsible for one of its most notorious. And Hands was soon also forced by financing difficulties to turn the RSC’s London residency from a year-round operation to a part-time one.

The RSC, having arguably expanded too fast, was now facing a crisis of confidence and identity. It was this now floundering company that Adrian Noble inherited as artistic director in 1991. His attempts to bring about a new change of direction and stability, however, only destabilised the company further – and, following Hands’ lead of reducing the company’s relationship with the Barbican, severed it completely and left the company without a permanent London home. The intention instead was to offer ad hoc London seasons at West End theatres, but being at the mercy (and pricing) of commercial managements was not a stable business model, nor a good one to offer the sense of continuity that a theatre company needs to engender with its audience.

Meanwhile, Noble also conceived a plan that was widely ridiculed, to turn Stratford-upon-Avon into a Shakespeare Village, and also involved complete demolition and replacement of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It looked like the RSC was going to be totally dismantled and destroyed before having to be rebuilt. Noble, like his predecessors, also thought that musicals might be a way out of the financial black hole, staging RSC productions of Cole Porter’s Broadway classic Kiss Me, Kate (that at least had a Shakespearean connection for being based on The Taming of the Shrew) and the British premiere of the Broadway musical version of the children’s literary classic The Secret Garden. Both of them transferred to the West End, but neither turned into Les Miserables.

Instead, Noble took a freelance assignment to direct a stage version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and after making it fly (in every sense) at the London Palladium, decided to fly himself. The RSC was now in a dark place – and carrying a £2.8 million deficit – when Michael Boyd succeeded Noble as artistic director in 2003. But proving that strong artistic leadership and vision can turn anything around, Boyd returned the company to its founding principles. He didn’t just assert the importance of fine Shakespearean productions – and bold projects such as the entire History Cycle that he directed with the same superb ensemble company – but also the achievements of the latter pointed to the fact that the company thrives best when it is one.

Actors are once again being employed as part of an ensemble which works together over a long range of projects. The company may not get ‘stars’ to commit for those sorts of runs, though it doesn’t preclude them being employed for ad hoc projects, as Patrick Stewart is involved with this season, returning to play Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. But the RSC is also doing what it has always done best – instead of employing stars, it is making them. Where once young actors such as Kenneth Branagh, Ralph Fiennes, Toby Stephens and David Tennant earned their acting stripes with the RSC, a new generation of actors such as Geoffrey Streatfeild, Jonathan Slinger, Mariah Gale and Jonjo O’Neill are now taking up the mantle.

And, of course, the RSC has also received a wonderful 50th birthday present as Boyd presided over a plan to rebuild (but not completely destroy) its home Stratford theatre. With the Swan serving as an inspiration for the company’s subsequent adoption of thrust staging as its favoured approach, this has led to the complete overhaul of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It was reconfigured as a thrust theatre as part of a £112.8 million refurbishment plan to Scott’s original building that has also made other key changes, including linking the main house and Swan physically, and a brand new observation tower built at the front of the theatre.

That project, which was completed on time and on budget, is part of the RSC’s new-found confidence in itself that has also seen it sign a long-term arrangement with the Roundhouse to act as its London transfer home, and is seeing the company also take a season of plays to New York this summer as well. As the company now moves forward to its second half century, it is in great shape both physically and philosophically.

For more features and analysis of the RSC’s 50th anniversary, see pages 8-9 and 20-23

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