The R.S.C. at Fifty

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The editors of The Stage newspaper have asked me to write a piece commemorating fifty years of the RSC. This has made me delve into memories of more than half a century’s Stratford theatre-going. I came here first for a short holiday in 1954, when I saw four plays. My main memories are of Barbara Jefford as a sparky Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and of a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Anthony Quayle as Bottom. I remember the curtain going up after an interval to reveal the mechanicals all sitting in a row staring at the audience and us staring back at them as they sought for long and in vain for inspiration. Yes, there was a curtain in those days, and an orchestra pit in front of the proscenium stage with real, visible musicians who played the National Anthem to a standing audience before the performance began, and the curtain went up at the start and down at the end, and at the interval a safety curtain reassured us that if the theatre burned for down a second time we had a reasonable chance of surviving the conflagration. And the front of the circle went straight across the auditorium and the programmes cost sixpence (I think) and carried not a single advertisement.

I came to live in Stratford four years later, in 1958, in time for the glittering 100th season (the arithmetic was a bit dodgy) of 1959, with Laurence Olivier and Edith Evans in Coriolanus, Tyrone Guthrie’s amazingly polished All’s Well That Ends Well, Paul Robeson’s sonorous if static Othello and Charles Laughton’s Lear and (much better) Bottom in the first of Peter Hall’s extraordinary series, extending now over half a century, of productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Hall, still in his twenties then, directed Coriolanus too. He was clearly emerging as both a leading Shakespeare director and a major theatrical entrepreneur. He followed up with an entrancing Twelfth Night with Dorothy Tutin magical as Viola, and, co-directing with the newly recruited John Barton, a Troilus and Cressida which stays in my mind as one of the greatest productions of any play I’ve ever seen.

All this came before the company was granted the Royal label and re-aligned administratively along the lines on which it currently operates. Some of my most vivid and happiest Stratford memories are of productions before the 1961 watershed. But now I’ve been set the task of writing about one production of each decade of the past fifty years, and the choice has not been easy. Certainly to look over the list of plays performed during this period is to read an extraordinarily wide-ranging conspectus of the world’s drama, past and present. It presents too a roll call of the finest actors of the period, not only in starring but also in lesser roles.

The big names are there, of course – John Gielgud, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Robert (and Toby) Stephens (father and son), Dorothy Tutin, Eric Porter, Judi Dench, Richard Pasco, Ian Richardson, Desmond Barritt, Peggy Ashcroft, Donald Sinden, Antony Sher among them. And memories crowd in too of actors who, if they didn’t take on the major leads, and if their names mean little to recent playgoers, nevertheless contributed mightily in secondary roles – I think of Anthony Nicholls, Harry Andrews, Derek Godfrey, Tony Church, David Waller, Peter Woodthorpe, Paul Hardwick, and many others. And there are directors such as Peter Brook, John Barton, Barry Kyle, Adrian Noble, Deborah Warner, Michael Attenborough, Dominic Cooke, Ken Alexander, and those currently working for the company.

The task before me is to select and write about one production from each of the RSC’s five decades, and it has given me many headaches. In fact I’m sure that by the time my deadline arrives I shall have spent far more time worrying over what to write about than the actual writing will take. At any rate I’ve made up my mind now. At least …. Well perhaps I should … But then I do want to include — O, wait and see!

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website
  • I’m only into my fourth decade watching the RSC, so can’t talk with the same experience as Professor Wells, but I do have some strong memories of the last 27 years.

    The very first RSC production that I saw was Antony Sher’s Richard III. Sher played with the audience and took us with him through the production. I still remember Richard III’s stunning death with the sword through his hunchback and the way he drew the G in the air with the crutch in the opening soliloquy. However, this was also the season of Roger Rees’s Hamlet and Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V. I also enjoyed the Love’s Labour’s Lost, which I remember as being very funny. It was an amazing weekend in Stratford which inspired me to revisit as much as I could after that, as well as visiting Newcastle for the annual RSC residency.

    Over the years some productions stand out more than others. Sam Mendes The Tempest was a stunning exploration of theatre itself and took a postcolonial approach to the play at a time literary critics were also exploring this aspect. Simon Russell Beale’s Arial caught my imagination and worked so well because he played the character against type. I remember Adrian Noble’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which worked much better on stage than it did as a film. Brian Cox’s Titus is a still a strong memory from the Swan and later Greg Doran’s shinny sets for his A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet and Love’s Labours’ Lost season made the 2008 season at The Courtyard so memorable.

    The last productions that I saw were the current long ensemble’s King Lear and Romeo and Juliet. I think the last weekend of the current long ensemble in Stratford has shown that in the end the project was an amazing success, but also how much the RSC’s approach to Shakespeare has changed since Sher’s Richard III.

  • I’m only into my fourth decade watching the RSC, so can’t talk with the same experience as Professor Wells, but I do have some strong memories of the last 27 years.

    The very first RSC production that I saw was Antony Sher’s Richard III. Sher played with the audience and took us with him through the production. I still remember Richard III’s stunning death with the sword through his hunchback and the way he drew the G in the air with the crutch in the opening soliloquy. However, this was also the season of Roger Rees’s Hamlet and Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V. I also enjoyed the Love’s Labour’s Lost, which I remember as being very funny. It was an amazing weekend in Stratford which inspired me to revisit as much as I could after that, as well as visiting Newcastle for the annual RSC residency.

    Over the years some productions stand out more than others. Sam Mendes The Tempest was a stunning exploration of theatre itself and took a postcolonial approach to the play at a time literary critics were also exploring this aspect. Simon Russell Beale’s Arial caught my imagination and worked so well because he played the character against type. I remember Adrian Noble’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which worked much better on stage than it did as a film. Brian Cox’s Titus is a still a strong memory from the Swan and later Greg Doran’s shinny sets for his A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet and Love’s Labours’ Lost season made the 2008 season at The Courtyard so memorable.

    The last productions that I saw were the current long ensemble’s King Lear and Romeo and Juliet. I think the last weekend of the current long ensemble in Stratford has shown that in the end the project was an amazing success, but also how much the RSC’s approach to Shakespeare has changed since Sher’s Richard III.

  • I’m only into my fourth decade watching the RSC, so can’t talk with the same experience as Professor Wells, but I do have some strong memories of the last 27 years.

    The very first RSC production that I saw was Antony Sher’s Richard III. Sher played with the audience and took us with him through the production. I still remember Richard III’s stunning death with the sword through his hunchback and the way he drew the G in the air with the crutch in the opening soliloquy. However, this was also the season of Roger Rees’s Hamlet and Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V. I also enjoyed the Love’s Labour’s Lost, which I remember as being very funny. It was an amazing weekend in Stratford which inspired me to revisit as much as I could after that, as well as visiting Newcastle for the annual RSC residency.

    Over the years some productions stand out more than others. Sam Mendes The Tempest was a stunning exploration of theatre itself and took a postcolonial approach to the play at a time literary critics were also exploring this aspect. Simon Russell Beale’s Arial caught my imagination and worked so well because he played the character against type. I remember Adrian Noble’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which worked much better on stage than it did as a film. Brian Cox’s Titus is a still a strong memory from the Swan and later Greg Doran’s shinny sets for his A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet and Love’s Labours’ Lost season made the 2008 season at The Courtyard so memorable.

    The last productions that I saw were the current long ensemble’s King Lear and Romeo and Juliet. I think the last weekend of the current long ensemble in Stratford has shown that in the end the project was an amazing success, but also how much the RSC’s approach to Shakespeare has changed since Sher’s Richard III.

  • I’m only into my fourth decade watching the RSC, so can’t talk with the same experience as Professor Wells, but I do have some strong memories of the last 27 years.

    The very first RSC production that I saw was Antony Sher’s Richard III. Sher played with the audience and took us with him through the production. I still remember Richard III’s stunning death with the sword through his hunchback and the way he drew the G in the air with the crutch in the opening soliloquy. However, this was also the season of Roger Rees’s Hamlet and Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V. I also enjoyed the Love’s Labour’s Lost, which I remember as being very funny. It was an amazing weekend in Stratford which inspired me to revisit as much as I could after that, as well as visiting Newcastle for the annual RSC residency.

    Over the years some productions stand out more than others. Sam Mendes The Tempest was a stunning exploration of theatre itself and took a postcolonial approach to the play at a time literary critics were also exploring this aspect. Simon Russell Beale’s Arial caught my imagination and worked so well because he played the character against type. I remember Adrian Noble’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which worked much better on stage than it did as a film. Brian Cox’s Titus is a still a strong memory from the Swan and later Greg Doran’s shinny sets for his A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet and Love’s Labours’ Lost season made the 2008 season at The Courtyard so memorable.

    The last productions that I saw were the current long ensemble’s King Lear and Romeo and Juliet. I think the last weekend of the current long ensemble in Stratford has shown that in the end the project was an amazing success, but also how much the RSC’s approach to Shakespeare has changed since Sher’s Richard III.

  • I’m only into my fourth decade watching the RSC, so can’t talk with the same experience as Professor Wells, but I do have some strong memories of the last 27 years.

    The very first RSC production that I saw was Antony Sher’s Richard III. Sher played with the audience and took us with him through the production. I still remember Richard III’s stunning death with the sword through his hunchback and the way he drew the G in the air with the crutch in the opening soliloquy. However, this was also the season of Roger Rees’s Hamlet and Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V. I also enjoyed the Love’s Labour’s Lost, which I remember as being very funny. It was an amazing weekend in Stratford which inspired me to revisit as much as I could after that, as well as visiting Newcastle for the annual RSC residency.

    Over the years some productions stand out more than others. Sam Mendes The Tempest was a stunning exploration of theatre itself and took a postcolonial approach to the play at a time literary critics were also exploring this aspect. Simon Russell Beale’s Arial caught my imagination and worked so well because he played the character against type. I remember Adrian Noble’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which worked much better on stage than it did as a film. Brian Cox’s Titus is a still a strong memory from the Swan and later Greg Doran’s shinny sets for his A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet and Love’s Labours’ Lost season made the 2008 season at The Courtyard so memorable.

    The last productions that I saw were the current long ensemble’s King Lear and Romeo and Juliet. I think the last weekend of the current long ensemble in Stratford has shown that in the end the project was an amazing success, but also how much the RSC’s approach to Shakespeare has changed since Sher’s Richard III.

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