The Bard would not be amused

Inside the Royal Shakespeare Company
August 27, 2004

Inside the Royal Shakespeare Company "describes what happened to a radical theatrical vision and explores British society's inability to sustain that vision". We are all guilty, then. While Colin Chambers offers a history of four decades, he is light on the thought that the RSC has contributed to its own misfortunes.

Chambers' main thesis is that the RSC has been the victim of Arts Council meanness: "The miserly state gave the company just enough subsidy to keep it alive but not enough to allow it to flourish as it wished." Since Sir Peter Hall's policy from the outset was to run a sizeable deficit, thus forcing the Arts Council to bail out the company, one might say that institutional meanness was the council's only sane response. The RSC then charged it with "underfunding".

The latest Arts Council subsidy is £12.8 million, the RSC deficit Pounds 2.8 million. Where did the money go? Not on the actors. The late Robert Stephens complained about the low rates he received, and he was the star. RSC actors are modestly paid and are charged for their Stratford lodgings (owned by the company). Under the "new managerialism", non-acting personnel swelled. "[Adrian] Noble expanded middle and senior management, which came to be the company's driving force." This is reminiscent of the National Health Service and of the BBC. Managerial hypertrophy is the disease of the age.

The results have not been impressive. The opportunities for brilliant revaluations of Shakespeare have largely been taken. The Wars of the Roses , the Peter Hall-David Warner student prince Hamlet, the Measure for Measure in which Isabella turns down the duke, all resonated in their day and cannot be repeated. The canonical favourites come up every three years, but there have been few memorable productions. The stage's upper echelons seem unwilling to go to Stratford.

And the management has not covered itself with glory. At one point, "the Stratford theatre was 'dark' in the summer at the height of the tourist influx". They abandoned their London base, the Barbican. They closed down a theatre, The Other Place, to make space for offices. Above all, management committed a towering folly that still overhangs the company's prospects.

In the autumn of 2001, Noble announced the vainglorious "Project Fleet".

The main theatre was to be demolished, and a new auditorium was to be created in a "theatre village" - which looked suspiciously like a theme park - by the Avon. This plan met derision and hostility in equal parts and was effectively withdrawn. Noble resigned in May 2002, having prudently waited for the opening of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang , which he directed. The reviews assured him of an affluent old age and he retired hurt. His place was taken by Michael Boyd, who has kept his head down since early interviews in which he promised "bawdy Shakespeare".

A further issue was Noble's idea that the RSC was a "brand name" that could, in principle, be marketed anywhere. Residencies were established in the US - in Michigan, Brooklyn and Washington. Stratford was to be the assembly point for expeditions to the New World. But the export brand has run into logistics difficulties. "Company or Corporation?" asks Chambers.

Above all, the National Theatre is winning the duel with the RSC. It continues to scoop up awards; the RSC has had few. Last year, the RSC received a 5.5 per cent increase in funding, the National 16 per cent. The RSC has been told to shape up.

The reader will find here many details of the company's decline, but not the justification the author seeks.

Ralph Berry's most recent book is Tragic Instance: The Sequence of Shakespeare's Tragedies .

Inside the Royal Shakespeare Company: Creativity and the Institution

Author - Colin Chambers
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 280
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 0 415 21202 2

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