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The Royal Shakespeare Company at 60: a very happy birthday?

Muted celebrations, concerns of relevance and controversial origins — Alexander Larman delves into the RSC at 60

Under normal circumstances, the sixtieth anniversary of the foundation of the Royal Shakespeare Company, which passed earlier in the month, would have been greeted with fanfare, jubilation and no doubt a series of commemorative events. Like everything else, this has not taken place. Instead, the organisation’s website alternates between the optimistic (‘Theatre coming home to Stratford’) and the downbeat (‘Lament for a year of lost theatre’). Fittingly, the website has the text ‘Keep Your RSC’ at the top, although it isn’t entirely clear whether this is a plea, an admonition (‘You can keep your Shakespearean drama!’) or a command.

There are (optimistic) previews of what is coming later in the year, links to watch former productions on various streaming websites – a choice that many might find slightly depressing – and, of course, requests for much-needed help, whether as a straightforward donation or in other fashions. I was pleased to learn that, if I buy anything from Amazon, the guilt I will feel can be assuaged by 0.5% of my purchase, thanks to the so-called ‘Amazon Smile’ initiative. Certainly, the thought of helping out the RSC as I buy my latest supply of overpriced printer ink has brought a wry grin to my face.

The impression given, inadvertently or not, is that the RSC has been quietly hibernating and is awaiting its return when it is safe again so to do

Yet, unlike the National Theatre, where the love-him-or-loathe-him artistic director Rufus Norris has successfully impressed upon the country’s arts correspondents that his theatre’s travails are somehow symbolically linked to the fortunes of Britain itself (not for nothing is it a ‘national’ institution), there is little sense that its onetime rival has very much to contribute. This is not for want of trying on its part. The company’s website boasts about lockdown initiatives taking place from Blackpool to Truro, bringing Shakespeare and his words to local groups. However, there has been nothing to compare to the National’s one play a week on YouTube initiative from the first lockdown; instead, the impression given, inadvertently or not, is that the RSC has been quietly hibernating and is awaiting its return when it is safe again so to do.

The highest-profile news story in the last year was an outraged response from Gregory Doran, the theatre’s artistic director, when the Sunday Times journalist Jonathan Dugdale casually described a screened production of Macbeth as ‘less garishly diverse in casting’ than a 2018 Romeo and Juliet. Doran wrote an angry letter to the paper, in which he said ‘I would appreciate understanding what Mr Dugdale means by “garishly diverse”. When Juliet uses the word garish she means the sun is too self-consciously dazzling, vulgarly obtrusive perhaps, or tastelessly showy. Is Mr Dugdale implying that the diversity in the casting of this production is obtrusive or inappropriate in some way?’

Warming to his theme, Doran continued ‘Does he object to a British Asian actor from Coventry playing Romeo, or a Glaswegian playing Juliet, or is his objection that Mercutio was played as a woman? By all means challenge us on the quality of performance, but to object to the right of these actors to play these great roles, because of their regionality, their ethnicity, or their gender is surely unacceptable and insulting.  Hamlet says that the purpose of playing is to hold “the mirror up to nature”. If as a young person you watch these great plays, but do not see your own face reflected in what you see, why should you engage? Our purpose at the RSC is to ensure that Shakespeare is for everyone, whatever your class or colour, and that we reflect the Nation in all its diversity.  And if that seems garish, then I can make no apology for that.’

Doran’s anger and sense of outrage at what was, undeniably, a clumsily offensive piece of throwaway description can be understood. The artistic director of any theatre is its figurehead; to use a footballing analogy – and this is probably the only time I’ll ever do so, please forgive me if it’s inaccurate in some key regard – they have to be its manager, centre-forward and team captain all at once. Doran is the sixth artistic director to have taken over the reins, after Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn, Terry Hands, Adrian Noble and Michael Boyd, all university-educated, middle-class white men, and has attracted his fair share of plaudits and brickbats since his appointment in 2012. Yet it is his bad luck that fate’s game of pass-the-parcel has meant that it is under his watch that the RSC’s doors have been closed for a year, which not only has placed the future of the institution under threat, but has meant that his previous actions have come under intense scrutiny. Put bluntly, has he done enough in the last nine years to make the RSC an irreplaceable part of Britain’s national and theatrical heritage?

It now seems slightly bizarre that the RSC’s foundation six decades ago was initially hugely controversial, being masterminded by the 29-year old wunderkind Peter Hall as a direct rival to Laurence Olivier’s nascent National Theatre. There had been theatres in Stratford designed to perform Shakespearean plays since David Garrick had built his Jubilee Pavilion in 1769, and a permanent Shakespeare Memorial Theatre had been constructed in 1932, but Hall was bold enough to set about building a repertory company who would alternate between performing in Stratford and London, as well as committing to new writing from contemporary playwrights, who would soon include the likes of Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter and Peter Nichols. Olivier hated the idea, especially the concept of the London residency, but his objections were not enough to halt its progress. And since then, it has been the world leader in Shakespeare production and performance, as well as building an impressive repertoire in other drama.

Matters have not always been plain sailing, even before now. After the assured artistic direction of Hall and Trevor Nunn, the organisation fell into trouble, firstly under the brief directorship of Terry Hands between 1986 and 1991 and then more seriously under Adrian Noble between 1991 and 2003. Noble ran the company into debt and gave every impression of failing to understand its purpose, with his major initiative being the so-called ‘Project Fleet’ that would have demolished the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and replaced it with a ‘Shakespeare village’, with an almost Disneyland element. The organisation was rescued by Michael Boyd, who oversaw the refurbishment of the dated theatres and brought back many of the organisation’s highest-profile actors for sold-out shows, such as David Tennant in Hamlet and Ian McKellen in King Lear, as well as shepherding the hit adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, one of the most lucrative productions in the RSC’s history, despite having absolutely nothing to do with Shakespeare.

Since 2012, Doran has seen the company go through ups and downs, with the current situation being by far its most considerable down, even surpassing the Noble years for bleakness. Yet there had been murmurings of discontent even before last March. Michael Billington, in an otherwise positive piece about the company’s 60th anniversary, bemoaned the absence of big-name actors and major new writers on stage, and there has been a notable lack of breakout hit shows during the Doran regime. The recent staging of the David Walliams musical adaptation The Boy in The Dress, an obvious attempt to repeat the Matilda magic, was not greeted with the same acclaim or success, although this may in part be to the fact that Walliams’ extraordinary commercial clout is not matched by equal warmth being felt towards him and his work by many.

I very much hope that the RSC, like all major arts organisations, comes through the current storm battered but unbroken

There is also the eternal problem that Shakespeare, being a dead white man from hundreds of years ago, cannot easily be co-opted into contemporary theatrical expectations of wokishness. Of course, directors can employ diverse casts, ensure that there are eye-catching initiatives that will attract headlines and generally try to make ‘the man from Stratford’ that all-important thing for Arts Council funding, ‘relevant’. But there is the counter-argument that the plays are never going to be straightforward or easy, but instead reward effort, concentration and thought. As someone who has seen weak RSC productions and failed to understand much of what was going on because of the impenetrability of the language, I am grateful for clear, intelligent and well-acted productions that allow me to think that I get what is happening on stage for the duration of the play, even if it would baffle me when written down.

I very much hope that the RSC, like all major arts organisations, comes through the current storm battered but unbroken, and that Doran takes Billington’s advice to heart and returns with some of the finest actors in the country appearing in brilliant productions of great plays. There might not be anything especially ground-breaking about, say, David Oyelowo and Alex Jennings appearing in Othello, but it would be both deeply exciting and commercially successful.

Perhaps this is the best path to take over the next couple of years, rather than attempting to strive desperately for ‘relevance’. Concentrate on getting the best possible versions of some of the greatest drama ever written before audiences, and the RSC can look forward to another six glorious decades, and beyond. If Doran and his cohorts try to pander to those who have long written off Shakespeare as a dead white man, then I am unsure that this organisation, like many others, can survive indefinitely, let alone whether it deserves to.

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