Who should run the RSC next?
Someone has to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Running the Royal Shakespeare Company might not be grunting and sweating under a weary life, but (after the stewardship of the National Theatre) it’s the biggest, most prestigious and most challenging job in English theatre. Whoever fills the breeches of the artistic director has to be more of a Coriolanus or a Caesar than a Hamlet or a Lear. It is a role that requires charm, diplomacy, deep literary knowledge, rat-like cunning — when needed — and a sense of pizazz that would do justice to a West End maître’d. (Jeremy King’s available — just saying.) And, of course, one has to tread carefully through the culture wars, dealing with everything from diversity of casting and productions to putting on plays that people will want to go and see. Some artistic directors are born great, some achieve greatness, and the others have it thrust upon ‘em. Worse luck.
When I look at recent productions, I see shreds and patches
Still, there are advantages. The RSC is arguably more interesting than the National as an organisation, not least because its central tenet — the promotion and the production of the works of the greatest writer in the English language — is such a beautifully simple one. Not that there’s much that is simple about the job itself. Whoever is in charge of the organisation not only has to run the iconic Royal Shakespeare Theatre and its sister establishments, the Swan and the Other Place, but also has to supervise residencies at the Barbican and Theatre Royal in Newcastle, organise tours, be responsible for endless numbers of complaints, queries and sponsor dinners, and probably avoid going mad when the wind is north-northwest, too.
There have been seven artistic directors since the RSC’s formal foundation in 1960. All have been white men, as has been the way of the theatre until very recently. The key difference between it and the National is that the usual Oxbridge domination is nowhere to be found. Instead, the universities of Edinburgh, Bristol and Birmingham have produced the likes of Gregory Doran, Adrian Noble, Michael Boyd and Terry Hands: the RSC’s four most recent grand supremos.
Hands did a more than competent, reasonably traditional job in a style of conventional production that would now be seen as almost comically anachronistic, but which many of us might secretly (or not so secretly) miss. Noble had an unpleasant time at the company, complaining that his grand plans to demolish the theatre and turn the area into a kind of grand “Shakespearean village” were frustrated by the forces of innate conservatism. His successor Boyd concentrated on ensuring that the RSC’s shaky finances were turned around by dint of producing shows that people wanted to go and see, returning the company to a London residency (Noble had insisted that it left its traditional home at the Barbican) and staging the complete works. Since 2012, Doran has been a popular artistic director, whose productions of King Lear, Death of A Salesman, Henry IV Part I and II — all with his husband Antony Sher — and Hamlet, with David Tennant especially antic as the Dane, all played to acclaim, box office success and a wish that he could stay in post forever.
Alas. Not only are artistic directors — even Shakespearean ones — subject to the same heart-ache and thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, but Doran has undoubtedly been profoundly affected by the recent death of Sher. It seems likely that the period of absence that he took from the company to care for his husband, to be replaced by acting artistic director Erica Whyman, has led to a decision to step down as the RSC supremo. He has now created a vacancy that will undoubtedly be keenly sought by every ambitious practitioner in the country. What should the RSC’s governors be looking for, and what can the company do after Doran’s regime?
The RSC needs to concentrate on the basics: Shakespeare, done brilliantly
I have always enjoyed my visits to the RSC, but there have been fewer of them lately than I remember from my youth. This is partly for the usual reasons — a young child whose love of Shakespearean drama does not yet match my own; plague — but also because the vast majority of what has been staged in Stratford lately has been oddly inessential. Even as recently as 2015, there were must-see productions such as Jasper Britton in The Jew of Malta and Sher as Willy Loman. Simon Russell Beale’s long-awaited return to the Company in 2017 with his Prospero was a special effects-enhanced triumph. But when I look at what’s been on more recently, I see shreds and patches. It perhaps reached its nadir with an adaptation of David Walliams’ The Boy In The Dress, with songs co-written by Robbie Williams. As one critic caustically pointed out, a musical that makes a big deal out of tolerance and acceptance is somewhat stymied when one of its major jokes is that the antagonistic character of a stern and bigoted headmaster, railing against the eponymous lad, is himself revealed to be a cross-dresser.
Transvestite pedagoguery aside, the RSC needs to concentrate on the basics: Shakespeare, done brilliantly. We could do with more revelatory star-making performances such as Paapa Essiedu’s Hamlet — like Ben Whishaw at the Old Vic a decade before, a star was born overnight. We also need good roles for the old guard, who might feel that the Rufus Norris regime at the National has been somewhat uninterested in giving them the meaty Shakespearean roles that they deserve. The regrettable fact is that star names have always brought in punters (put Tennant, an RSC veteran, in anything and it sells out immediately) and will continue to do so. If an artistic director can guarantee at least one massive show of this nature a season, then it will free them up to pursue more interesting work.
The estimable Michael Billington suggests that an actor would do a decent job, and he may well be right. I also feel that a female artistic director would be a useful course corrective to a very male-dominated industry, and wonder if either Whyman or the excellent Blanche Macintyre might be tempted — or, to throw out a wild card, the equally fine Polly Findlay. If I were to have an absolute dream nomination, it would be a director who has conquered the fields of theatre, television and film, an Oscar and Olivier award-winning titan whose every work is a magnificent exercise in must-see spectacle — and who also built up his name at his own theatre, too. Sir Sam Mendes, RSC artistic director — of such things is greatness surely made. But not Sir Mark Rylance, please. Not only does he not believe that Shakespeare was Shakespeare, but knowing our luck, we’d get endless geriatric versions of Much Ado About Nothing. That is, surely, a custom more honoured in the breach than the observance.
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