Sunday, April 22, 2007


In May 2004 the Royal Shakespeare Company was beginning to emerge from one of the more turbulent periods in its history. It had fled expensively from the Barbican, had an unhappy season at The Roundhouse, and run up a substantial deficit. Its plans to demolish the listed Memorial Theatre in Stratford on Avon and replace it with an entirely new building had been received with less than utter rapture. Under a new team the RSC was beginning to find its feet creatively, and had made a healthy financial surplus. It was a time for caution and consolidation.

Against this background, the RSC’s Artistic Director Michael Boyd clearly recalled the attitude of Marshal Foch at the battle of the Marne in 1914, “Hard pressed on my right. My centre is yielding. Impossible to manoeuvre. Situation excellent. I am attacking”. So he decided the RSC should stage the Complete Works of William Shakespeare in a single international Festival year. A brave RSC Board agreed, allocated £3 million from reserves to cover the cost, appointed Deborah Shaw as Complete Works Producer, and embarked on an extraordinary twelve months.

My contribution as Chairman was to undertake a sponsored Complete Works Marathon and see them all – 38 plays, The Rape of Lucrece, Venus and Adonis, The Phoenix and The Turtle, and some of the sonnets. Just over twelve months, 884,647 words, 589 scenes, and £133,344 later I breasted the tape at the press night of the Trevor Nunn/Ian McKellen King Lear. Not alone – 100 fellow completists had paid £1,000 for season tickets, and most of them had lasted the course. Shakespeare anoraks are a hardy breed. A glittering press night is one thing, but turning out in The Swan for a 3 o’clock rehearsed reading of The Two Noble Kinsman [rarely performed, and for good reason] quite another.

What were the highlights? The RSC’s companies demonstrated the strength of the ensemble in a glowing Much Ado, a powerful Tempest, a dazzling Antony and Cleopatra, three Henry VI’s on a single day followed by a memorable Richard III. A production of Henry VIII in Holy Trinity, Shakespeare’s church, that raised the hairs on the back of
my neck, in which brilliant direction and a strong cast triumphed over the narrow nave-length stage. Soprano voices from the choir, thunderous knocking on the church door, the candle-lit sanctuary, stained glass windows [replaced since their destruction in the Reformation] provided an extraordinary backdrop. And a beautiful baby, the infant Elizabeth I, behaved impeccably as she was christened, like Shakespeare, in the Holy Trinity font. She stole that show. An erotic Venus and Adonis, a strong Coriolanus, the last play to be performed on the stage of the RST before its transformation, and a climactic King Lear in the 1,000 seat temporary Courtyard Theatre.

There were some disappointments. Romeo and Juliet didn’t work. In Kneehigh’s Cymbeline the plot and most of Shakespeare’s words had been lost, and the good jokes were drowned in sloppy paraphrasing. say, loved it. The Sonnets performance was a gamble that failed. The first four sonnets were competently read and beautifully sung, but it was a mistake to entrust the rest to a menacing, pierced, platform-heeled Goth, who made it impossible to hear a word. The words matter.

There were some delightful surprises. An all-male production of Twelfth Night in Russian under the Cheek by Jowl banner was a triumph of the unexpected. A brilliant, ancient Feste, a handsome young Malvolio, a vodka-sodden Toby Belch, a feminine Olivia, combined with a ferocious Russian melancholy to produce a memorable evening. In an Italian version of Henry V Pippo Delbono, looking like a middle-aged, overweight, part-shaven biker with a beer bottle, turned into Henry V and dominated the audience through his powerful stage presence and the beguiling use of movement and music. His dance of triumph and despair remains one of the most compelling images of the Complete Works season. The RSC’s King John was a terrific performance of a rarely seen play; it is hard to imagine it better. The Ninagawa Titus Andronicus was terrifying and beautiful, the German Othello a violent, disconcerting and adventurous experiment that belonged in an adventurous season.

Good and bad, adventurous and conventional, I saw them all, and raised over £133,000 for the RSC thanks to the generosity of many kind friends. It was a fantastic year, a tribute to the imagination and energy of Michael Boyd, Vikki Heywood and Deborah Shaw in particular. The whole of the RSC and the many visiting companies created a unique and memorable Festival. 60 gallons of stage blood, 1,000 specially created scars, 1,300 costumes and over 3,000 props were used.

In the last twelve months Stratford has had Shakespeare in Japanese, Russian, Italian, German, Chinese, Portuguese, several South African languages, Arabic, seven Indian dialects, Shakespeare performed by Bunraku puppets, and by Tiny Ninjas bought from an Oregon vending machine, Shakespeare sung and Shakespeare danced. The cumulative effect has been an extraordinary reminder of the timeless and international appeal of the Heart of All England’s Elizabethan man, a reminder, in Hazlitt’s words, of “ the sweetness, thought, gravity, grace, wit, artless nature, copiousness, ease, pathos, and sublime conceptions of Shakespeare’s Muse.”


Anonymous Dolly said...

Great work.

4:16 AM  

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