In all his forms
Simon Tait on how the Royal Shakespeare Company’s plans for marking the death of its inspiration on the 400th anniversary this month are both contemporary
and a credit to the bard
At 8.30 pm on April 23, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the Royal Shakespeare Company will take BBC2 television and cinema view- ers on a live romp through the extraordinary legacy of that one playwright. Led by David Tennant it is, says Catherine Mallyon, the RSC’s executive director, “Shakespeare in all his forms”: ballet, rap, opera, music, comedy and, if there’s time, some drama too; with the likes of Judi Dench, Ian McKellen and Joseph Fiennes, of course, but also Akala, Alison Moyet and Rufus Wainwright.
It will take place in the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon in front of 1,000 guests, some of them winners of tickets through public ballots, but with a wider audience of millions. Afterwards there will be a free firework spectacular in front of the theatre and a “line of light” walk to Holy Trinity Church, where the Bard was baptised and buried.
Although the end of the evening is in the centre of worship that encompassed Shakespeare’s life, the emphasis of the day is on his importance to the modern world, no corner of which is unaware of his work.
The RSC, founded 55 years ago by Peter Hall, has moved forward in changing times, though the inspiration is the same as it was in 1961.
It went through a revolution under Adrian
Noble by leaving its London home at the Barbican to devote itself to Stratford and touring; then another one under Michael Boyd as CEO and Vikki Heywood, executive director, with the enormous Histories series on stage and the creation of a star-less ensemble, a rationalisation of the company and the building of a new theatre in Stratford.
For the last three years the current leadership of Gregory Doran as CEO, Erica Whyman in the new deputy role and Catherine Mallyon has been riding the upward trajectory launched by Boyd and Heywood, and built on what they established.
“It’s in the range of work, ever more educational, participative, experiential work” Mallyon says. Like Midsummer Mischief, the season of new plays by women playwrights put on by Whyman at the temporary ver- sion of RSC’s The Other Place.
And later this year, with Simon Russell Beale’s The Tempest, Doran is embracing digital technology by collaborating with the web designers Intel and the Imaginarium Studios to create “a truly innovative production for a new generation” – Ariel will be computer-generated. It will be streamed not only into cinemas but into schools around the country.
It’s part of the quatercentary celebration, as is the national tour of the A Midsummer Night’s Dream co-production with 14 am-dram companies that mixes professional and amateur actors, directed by Erica Whyman again. “Education comes around our core work now” Mallyon says. “We don’t feel we have to do it, it’s in our DNA. There’s more engagement with communities and regional government; we have a lot to do with Stratford now and local enterprise partnerships”.And the upgraded activity has had its effect. Box office sales are up from 80% to 90%, and on top of that half a million visitors have been to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre for its non-stage goings-on which the Doran regime has stepped up, people coming for events, activities, to see exhibitions and to use the restaurant.
All this commercial activity is essential if the RSC is to maintain the standard it has, against the cut in subsidy. Until 2010/11 the company got 54% of its money from the Arts Council, cut to 39% the following year. There was another 2.1% (3.6% in real terms) in 2015/16, and by 2017/18 the effect over three years will be 6.8%. So it has a fifth of its income to make up to keep level. The ACE investment is now about £15m a year and the RSC generates 75% of its income – 54% from box office, 11% from commercial trading and 6% in a growing contribution from philanthropy (£3.6m in the last financial year).
Happily, the first cut coincided with its box smash Matilda, still in the West End at the Cambridge Theatre and seen on three continents and 51 cities by almost 5 million (there have been 61 Matildas).
The company has also already sold double the tickets for the winter Barbican season it did last year, and this is another element of the RSC’s 2016-style operation. Having left the Barbican 13 years ago in a much-publicised flourish, the company is back in the theatre which, ironically now, was designed for it. After a few years of testing the ground starting with David Tennant’s Hamlet, the RSC has now made a five year deal to present a three month winter season in the City. There isn’t the Corporation of London subsidy there used to be or the year-round presence, but the RSC has its showcase with the flexibility to present elsewhere in the capital too – the Aldwych theatre has also been re- vived as an RSC venue.
Directly transferring to London from Stratford this winter will be Doctor Faustus and The Alchemist, to be followed by Anthony Sher’s King Lear and Cymbeline (in which the King of Britain is a queen).
But the last element of the celebrations will be the reopening of The Other Place after 18 months and a cost of £7.9m, as the RSC’s third Stratford venue, with new rehearsal space and hosting a new writing festival to emphasise the connection with current work. It has a new costume store, until now on the outskirts of Stratford, and more opportunities for the public to see the RSC at work with access to backstage activities.
Shakespeare’s theatre was an intimate relationship between the players and the audience, with the playwright often lurking unconcealed in the back- stage. New plays jostled for venue space with old favourites, and new writers queued up almost to compete with the established scribes. Innovation and immediacy were the hallmarks of Tudor playmaking, as they are once again as the nation marks 400 years of his legacy.