A quick one, in between shows:

Compared to the theatre I’ve seen in London over the past two or three years, the four shows I saw in Stratford this week have been seriously, depressingly lacklustre — with the signal exception of Doctor Faustus, which was spectacularly good. I will write more about that show tonight. But the two Shakespeares and Jonson’s Alchemist felt badly out of step not just with the Shakespeare productions I’ve seen in London, but also with the general developments in theatre aesthetics in the capital — or rather, with what theatre looks like in London outside the commercial world of the West End. Even a show as disappointing as Polly Findlay’s As You Like It at the National Theatre was more aesthetically ambitious than what the RSC does now (and her Alchemist was not recognizable as the same director’s work). Similarly, even, what six? seven? years ago, Melly Still did much more thrilling work at the NT with her Revenger’s Tragedy than with this year’s Cymbeline at the RSC.

Put very simply, London’s non-commercial theatre, for perhaps the first time ever, more profoundly even than in the wake of the Berliner Ensemble’s visits in the 1950s, is showing real signs of being influenced by European theatre. It’s still recognizably British, but it’s taking formal risks and tentatively testing out acting styles and attitudes to the text that did not use to have much of a home around here.

Now, of course I know that the RSC is not in London, caters to a much broader audience, and has to fulfill a problematically mixed bag of mandates. But it is not primarily a commercial undertaking — which is why I find it rather depressing that the work they produce, by and large, could easily fit into for-profit ventures like the Michael Grandage Company’s season at the Noel Coward Theatre or Kenneth Brannagh’s season at the Garrick. Shouldn’t part of the company’s mission be to engage with and take seriously contemporary approaches to Shakespeare’s plays (and those of his contemporaries)? Should the company not put theatre first, rather than preserving Shakespeare’s texts in the mouths of actors — as if editors were somehow not up to the task of looking after those texts? For better or worse, the RSC more often than not used to be the place where new ways of doing Shakespeare could be tried out and even popularized (“new” for Britain, I should say).

It really doesn’t feel like it’s that place anymore. Instead, it feels like the place people can go if they still want Shakespeare to be Shakespeare (and no, I don’t really know what that means) — but where they can also feel like they’re getting a vaguely “modern” experience because things are given a visually updated treatment and there’s cool (usually live) music. Isn’t that a problem, for what should be the place to do Shakespeare in the theatre?

One Response to The RSC and London: A widening Gulf?

  1. drpetekirwan says:

    I wonder if this is partly the result of the decision to place Shakespeare firmly in the main house and non-Shakespeare in the Swan; and, simultaneously, to film and broadcast all of the Shakespeares, which rightly or wrongly seems to me to be leading to a certain interpretive and aesthetic conservatism, at least with the Shakespeares – if you’re trying to create a ‘complete works’ library of DVDs, then these productions are being made to serve a broader purpose than (simply) doing Shakespeare in the theatre. But it also leads to the separate spaces referring only to their own work – just a few years back, the same actors would be in rep across two or three different spaces, doing different kinds of play. Now, there is the Shakespeare ensemble in the RST, the rest-of-early-modern ensemble in the Swan and some fab actors doing the small new play in TOP, which surely limits exposure and influence for the actors in each.

    Incidentally, I think Findlay did her best work (Arden of Faversham) in the Swan two years ago, in a season buoyed by the reopening of The Other Place and the first ‘Midsummer Mischief’ season of new writing.

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