Not what we ought to say about the R.S.C.?

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It has come to be something of an annual highlight. The hall of The Shakespeare Institute is full with members of the R.S.C.’s Summer School (most of them Shakespearian amateurs and enthusiasts; some of them Shakespeare professionals), and in walk Stanley Wells and Michael Billington to a significant round of applause. They have come to share and explore their own views about the current R.S.C. productions.
Stanley starts by admitting to feelings of embarrassment when he doesn’t enjoy a production as much as the audience around him. ‘But then I go back a long way. I recall seeing Wolfit as King Lear and Olivier as Antony, so I try to imagine myself into the perspective of someone who might be new to Shakespeare, or seeing a particular play for the first time.’

Michael was quick to reply, ‘You and I needn’t apologise for having seen lots of productions, and the fact that we have means that people expect us to share a different perspective. What’s joyous are the moments of innocent reaction to particular choices in a Shakespeare production, for example Jasper Britton emphasising the death of Petruccio’s father in the 2003 The Taming of the Shrew.’

‘Yes’, agreed Stanley, ‘but that was then. I think it’s fair to say that the R.S.C. is not in its best phase at the moment.’

Thus was the blue-touch paper ignited, and the summer school audience sat back to enjoy the indoor fireworks.

Michael recalled a recent conversation with Peter Hall who admitted to finding some recent stage images too distracting, specifically citing the example of the piano flown down during Richard II’s prison speech in Michael Boyd’s 2007 production (a repetition of the same device Boyd used in his 2005 Twelfth Night). Michael Billington suggested that Boyd was following the practice of Russian theatre in privileging a moderately anti-textual approach in favour of a more imagist one, and went on to name a focus on ‘text, text, text’ in British theatre as a ‘residual tradition.’ This might be true, but sounds pretty dicey as an approach to Shakespeare, a writer for whom action and word need carefully to be balanced.

The discussion went on to notice textual changes and abridgements in the current R.S.C. season: there is no clown to deliver the asp to Cleopatra, there is a ‘pot-plant’ rather than a ‘joint-stool’ in the mock-trial scene of King Lear, and the political aspects of the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues are played down in Romeo and Juliet.

‘Is this a flattening out of Shakespeare?’ asked Stanley.

‘Or an improvement?’ countered Michael.

Another area of the discussion questioned the success of the R.S.C.’s ensemble approach. Stanley is not convinced that having a single company of actors to perform the plays for three years really works, nor he is alone in this. ‘I’ve seen many examples of impressive work on single, shorter runs of Shakespeare’, he said. ‘Actors all have their limitations, and long contracts can even start bad habits.’

A ripple of applause and a hearty ‘hear, hear!’.

Michael defended the ensemble and suggested ‘that something is bound to emerge’ if you let a single company play for long enough.
Presumably, economics has something to do with the ensemble approach. Having the same productions in repertoire for a few years means that the R.S.C. reduces its overheads. There are fewer designers and directors to pay.

Stanley suggested that the R.S.C. should be doing more Shakespeare than it currently is, rather than indulging itself in Russian plays and Arthurian Legend.

Another ripple of applause.

There was, too, a candid exchange about the current Antony and Cleopatra. Both Michael and Stanley agreed that the poetry of the play was almost non-existent in the way it was being served up.

‘Not a show that will last in my memory.’ said Michael.

‘Oh, but you gave it three stars.’ said Stanley.

A ripple of delighted laughter.

Never a case of game, set, and match, but this conversation was a great opportunity to see two masters of the sport at play, and to hear some well-informed criticism of the publicly subsidized Royal Shakespeare Company.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
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  • Garrick Huscared

    The RSC have not lost their way. Text is not not not everything!!!!. It wasnt in shakespeares day and it certainly is not now! Shakespeare has moved with the times thanks to the RSC and others. What seems to be forgotten is that Shakespeare was not writing text to be venerated and cross examined. he wrote to entertain. Let the academics pour over the text and the rest of us enjoy pianola's descending from the heavans

    Garrick Huscared

  • http://twitter.com/Btacts Julie Raby

    I enjoyed the discussion on Friday between Professor Stanley Wells and Michael Billington which raised some very interesting points on both sides of the RSC ensemble debate. I think the ensemble is a useful experiment, and it has brought a group of actors together to work together to attempt to produce some interesting perspectives on the plays. I think the Romeo and Juliet and the King Lear are fantastic and exciting productions, and are examples of the ensemble working well with strong performances from most of the company. The three year ensemble also presents the opportunity for audiences to see the plays again sometime after they have become part of the repertory. I am really looking forward to seeing The Winter's Tale and As You Like It again to see how they have developed over the two years. However, I must admit it would be nice to see some different actors. Of course, Kathryn Hunter has joined the ensemble this year, and Greg Doran's Twelfth Night was a nice interlude to the resident ensemble. The ensemble has produced some excellent performances such as Jonjo O’Neill’s Mercutio and Mariah Gale’s Juliet.

    I have mixed feelings about Antony and Cleopatra, but as I said at the discussion last week, the production feels like it embeds Michael Boyd's philosophy of the ensemble and theatre. For example, there is a lot of use of the whole playing space such as lots of entrances and exits from the vomitoria, a shift from the picture frame of the proscenium arch constraining the action and separating from audience. In Newcastle, the production will have to change because the space is so different and it will be interesting to see what happens. I noticed the house lights were on for most of the production, so there was an emphasis on the audience watching the play and each other which Michael Boyd has talked about in many interviews. In this production, Katy Stephens and Greg Hicks had supporting roles, which I suppose is an attempt to move away from the ‘star’ actor system.

    I am not sure one off productions in the West End do deliver in the way the current RSC ensemble has delivered. The Almeida Measure for Measure was superb and of course the National All’s Well That Ends Well was a lovely piece of theatre. In the regions, The Northern Broadsides Othello worked well, but Northern Broadsides are also an ensemble company. However, I have to agree with Michael Billington that some one off productions do not work so well. I agree that the Donmar Hamlet focused on Jude Law and the Donmar Twelfth Night felt like a vehicle for Derek Jacobi's Malvolio above everything else.

    My view is we need the RSC to be innovative and experimental and it won’t always be safe and traditional. Some productions will not always work as well as others. The current approach to the ensemble is one way of achieving this and in my view has in the main delivered what it has set out to achieve.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1351820870 Charles Twigger

    II found the session really interesting and thought both Professor Stanley Wells and Michael Billington had excellent points to make!

  • Liz Woledge

    Now there is an interesting debate. Above we have one person saying that the RSC should not ‘play safe’ and another warning them against too much ‘innovation’. Who is the RSC for? Does it have to pitch it’s plays for a different market than other theatres? Who should it aim to please? The theatre critic in the third row? The university professor in the stalls? The Chinese tourist with only 5 words of English? The school groups? The international university students? Or just me!?

  • Liz Woledge

    Now there is an interesting debate. Above we have one person saying that the RSC should not ‘play safe’ and another warning them against too much ‘innovation’. Who is the RSC for? Does it have to pitch it’s plays for a different market than other theatres? Who should it aim to please? The theatre critic in the third row? The university professor in the stalls? The Chinese tourist with only 5 words of English? The school groups? The international university students? Or just me!?

  • Liz Woledge

    I really don’t mind the same actors playing different roles (in different plays). In fact I hardly notice. Only in cases where an actor is famous for a particular role. Like Patrick Stewart playing Antony when I knew him very well from Star Trek, but even then after a very short time I had forgotten about Star Trek and saw only Antony. Perhaps a testament to his excellent (In my opinion) treatment of that Shakespearian role.

  • Liz Woledge

    I really don’t mind the same actors playing different roles (in different plays). In fact I hardly notice. Only in cases where an actor is famous for a particular role. Like Patrick Stewart playing Antony when I knew him very well from Star Trek, but even then after a very short time I had forgotten about Star Trek and saw only Antony. Perhaps a testament to his excellent (In my opinion) treatment of that Shakespearian role.

  • http://twitter.com/Weez Weez

    I can't disagree about the actors bleeding into each other; where this worked very well in the Histories cycle, as actors popped up as different characters but still following a cohesive arc of their own, I found it more than a little strange watching the current King Lear with both Antony&Cleopatra and The Winter's Tale so fresh in my mind. But this is what you get when you have an ensemble, and I for one love the immediacy of enjoying a performer and knowing exactly what they'll be doing next. I also enjoyed the Julius Caesar to Antony&Cleopatra casting. I guess ensemble casting works best when the plays are related.

    I do wish there was a little more equality though; sometimes it seems like the same actors are playing the big roles from play to play to play while others are constantly in supporting roles. If it were mixed up more so everyone got their shot at a big part, I'd be a much happier bunny.

  • http://ajleon.me/ ajleon

    What I would have given to have been there!!

  • melissaleon

    I agree Diana it is difficult to see the same actors play different roles. It seems that the different characters they have played previously bleed into their current character, which obviously dilutes the performance in some way.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Glynis-Powell/721925093 Glynis Powell

    Sounds like an interesting discussion was had, wish I'd been there. Those of us who live nearby to Stratford are really privileged to be able to see the RSCs productions. I guess as more or less 'regulars' we get to see when they are going through better, or not so good, patches. But for many it might be a one off visit, a visit which is accompanied by the perceived magic and mystery of the 'home of Shakespeare'. In both cases we expect RSC productions to be 'of the the best', an 'event'. They mostly are, but while they have to be 'vaux de visite' it would be awful if the RSC played safe with its productions, if Stratford became a refuge for the ordinary or unadventurous productions. Aren't we there to be challenged more than being wrapped up, secure in the knowledge 'we must be cultured 'cos we're watching Shakespeare'? Some of the best interpretations I've seen have been done by young people or with cut down troupes in the open air. Yes there have been some disappointments at RSC recently, but lets ask the actors how they feel about ensemble playing. Do the economics of a long contract work for the actors? Does the economic stability mean they are able to develop and progress over time more than they would if they were chopping, changing jobs or 'resting' more? I miss some of the previous ensemble actors and look forward to them returning again, but they are not my property. I tend to garden by letting a plant settle in its place over some seasons, before concluding it would really thrive in another environment. I think I feel the same about ensembles… for a while.

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  • http://twitter.com/DianaJOwen Diana Owen

    I also recall much praise from Michael and Stanley of the current production of Romeo and Juliet which I have now seen 4 times and enjoyed every time. It is confusing though to see the same actors again and again in different roles, often on consecutive nights and it is hard not to still see them as another character at first. Greatly enjoyed the conversation at the Institute, could have listened for hours!

  • Ruth W

    Kudos to Stanley Wells for having the courage to openly question aspects of the RSC's approach. Having stayed regularly in Stratford guest houses as a part-time student at the SI, I make a point of asking both guests and hoteliers for their impressions on the RSC productions they come to see. All too often their reaction is bafflement. The RSC would do well to remember their importance to the local economy and tone down some of their more bizzare interpretations – there's certainly a place for innovation but it isn't on their main or only stage.

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