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Mark Shenton: Shakespeare? New Writing? It’s all theatre

Martina Laird and Ellora Torchia in All's Well That Ends Well. Photo: Marc Brenner Martina Laird and Ellora Torchia in All's Well That Ends Well. Photo: Marc Brenner
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We are truly blessed in Britain to live in a theatrical culture that offers us regular access to the great classics of the stage alongside contemporary work.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in our ongoing love affair with all things Shakespearean. The Royal Shakespeare Company no longer maintains a permanent, year-round presence in London. However, its return to the Barbican as a part-time home has told audiences where it can be found in the capital from time to time. (It is just wrapping up a transfer of some of its Roman plays at the Barbican this weekend.)

But the vacuum left by the RSC’s absence at other times has been tremendously filled by Shakespeare’s Globe. Thanks to the indoor Sam Wanamaker, this has a year-round presence, and has become the centre of Shakespearean gravity (and levity) in London. This week it opened a new production of the rarely-seen All’s Well That Ends Well in the candlelit splendour of the Wanamaker. I was with four other critics earlier the same day, and not one had seen a production of it. (The only production I remember is seeing Peggy Ashcroft at the RSC right at the start of my London theatregoing life).

All’s Well That Ends Well review at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London – ‘blisteringly good’

Other Shakespeares, of course, come around a lot more regularly. Previews begin this weekend of Nicholas Hytner’s new Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre, a play that was also part of the RSC’s Rome season and – in this Trumpian age – is being produced a lot. I also saw a productions last year at Sheffield’s Crucible – where it launched Robert Hastie’s tenure as artistic director – as part of Ivo van Hove’s Roman Tragedies at the Barbican.

Macbeth is about to be produced simultaneously by the RSC (at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Shakespeare Memorial Theatre from March 13, with Christopher Eccleston in the title role and Niamh Cusack as Lady M) and the National (in the Olivier Theatre from February 26, with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff).

In this way, producing Shakespeare can both speak about the present and illuminate meanings in the original texts. I always love how our best directors engage in that conversation alongside contemporary plays they are also directing. For instance, Polly Findlay – who is helming the RSC’s Macbeth next week – also oversees the transfer of the world premiere of David Eldridge’s Beginning from the National to the West End’s Ambassadors.

This is all part of the same thing. It’s an obvious thing but it’s worth remembering: both classic and modern theatre is all about storytelling and reaching the widest possible audience.

It’s why Dominic Cooke, who recently directed the phenomenal production of Follies at the National, spoke out against snobbery that is sometimes attached to musicals. As he said at a National Theatre platform: “We all know that some of the greatest pieces of work in the 20th century in theatre, were musical theatre. That shows are written to reach a wider public is a wonderful thing – to take different areas of human experience to a very wide public. I detest that awful coterie theatre that is about playing to a small room of people who are like you.”

But Shakespeare shows us our similarities, too, across more than 400 years. And that’s why we keep wanting to see his plays again and again.