A Blagger’s Guide to… the Royal Shakespeare Company

The RSC is the flagship British company for performing Shakespeare. Officially established in 1961, its prestigious fiftieth birthday was marked last year by a celebratory season of shows that included The Homecoming and Marat/Sade as well as Shakespeare favourites Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Although it officially came into being in the 60s, the RSC evolved from much earlier beginnings dating back to 1875 when the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Ltd. Incorporated was established and undertook its first tour to the U.S.A. in 1913. As well as its iconic home in Stratford-Upon-Avon, which was literally cemented by the unveiling of a re-modelled Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST) last year, the RSC has always had a presence in London too; in its early days this was in the Aldwych Theatre and then the Barbican. Its lack of a fixed base in the capital in more recent years though is the subject of current criticisms and drama critic Michael Billington suggests that the RSC has “lost ground as a national company” because of its reduced presence in London.

RSC productions have continuously captivated the public’s imagination whether through the diversity of their performatory re-imaginings of Shakespeare’s works or the big names, such as Sir Patrick Stewart, Dame Judi Dench, David Tennant and Jude Law, that they have enlisted. Its performances have sometimes provoked negativity and controversy too, most recently as part of the company’s birthday season, in Anthony Neilson’s revival of Peter Weiss’ play Marat/Sade. Themes of insanity, sexuality and abuse of power were exacerbated by violent staging, which included the use of a stun gun and a re-enactment of waterboarding. The audience’s reaction to these scenes last October was to walk out; an average of 30 people per night were said to leave before the end of each performance.

Since its founding by Peter Hall, the company has benefitted from a number of Artistic Directors at its helm including Trevor Nunn, Terry Hands and Adrian Noble. Current Artistic Director Michael Boyd is often credited with steering the company through a period when its future looked uncertain due to its move from the Barbican, the suggested re-building of the RST, financial problems and criticisms about the “wildly uneven” quality of its productions. However, Boyd is due to hand over his role to experienced RSC director and former actor Gregory Doran later this year, who plans “to assemble an exciting new artistic team…to start planning the company’s future with from 2014”.

Rosanna English

ArtsThis Issue

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