The RSC at FiftyResources

  • Stanley Wells

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!

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, and Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. He is an Associate Reviewer of ReviewingShakespeare. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells