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.