Boyd's way with the Bard

The Royal Shakespeare Company has strayed a long way from the mission set out by Peter Hall back in 1960, says Paul Taylor. Michael Boyd, its new artistic director, aims to rediscover the RSC's soul
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The Independent Culture

In his first press conference as its new artistic director, Michael Boyd last week pledged to "rediscover the soul of the RSC". There were no names named, but the implication was clear that in the regime of Adrian Noble, his predecessor and former boss, the company's raison d'être had got mislaid. Certainly, in the past year, the dramas behind the scenes at the RSC have rivalled those on its stages. Airborne in the lucrative driving seat of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Noble abandoned his post, leaving the company in limbo with a current deficit of £2m, the impression that the RSC was primarily a corporate logo rather than a repository of distinctive values, and his controversial plans for the demolition of the main house in Stratford and the creation of a Shakespeare "village".

Though the RSC seems always to have been with us it is, in fact, a relatively recent phenomenon, founded by Peter Hall in 1960 and - in some ways - it's a curious creature. It came about partly because the government of the time was dragging its feet over creating a National Theatre - a delay that allowed Hall to steal a march on those plans and transform what had been a summer festival in Stratford into a thriving year-round ensemble, with an additional base in London and a commitment to nurturing contemporary dramatists. So, by the time the National was launched in 1963, not only had George Devine's English Stage Company turned the Royal Court into the national theatre of cutting-edge new writing, but the Royal Shakespeare Company had appropriated the nation's greatest dramatic poet and resolved, in Hall's words, "to be open to the present, as well as expert in the past." That odd historical sequence is unique to this country and, because of a certain blurring demarcation, still accounts for the recurring question: "What is the RSC - or the National Theatre - for?"

As a way of trying to pinpoint what Boyd means by the "soul" of the RSC and to understand his plans for dragging it out of its doldrums, I played devil's advocate when we talked and asked him whether he thought the RSC would actually have come into being at all if the National Theatre had got started earlier. "Oh I think," he argues, "it would have had to be invented for the very reasons I am now attempting to reclarify" - namely the company's founding principles of a long-term ensemble of actors highly trained in speaking Shakespearean verse and adept at modern drama; a vibrant connection in the repertoire between past and present; and the use of subsidy for experimentation and research. "We have clearly got to escape from the valley of quasi-commercialism," Boyd told me, "because it's just crazy with this amount of subsidy and our ability to raise sponsorship to remain conservatively hidebound."

This is fighting talk and, to a large extent, backed up by action in the construction of the 2004 Festival season. A Core Ensemble of 36 actors will perform four Shakespeare tragedies on the main stage at Stratford (with Boyd directing Toby Stephens in Hamlet). Opposite them, in the Swan, a smaller ensemble of 20 actors will present a season of neglected plays by Shakespeare's Spanish contemporaries (Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina, et al) in versions specially commissioned from today's finest poets and playwrights (including Craig Raine and James Fenton). And in September there will be a short festival of new writing by up-and-coming dramatists such as Joanna Laurens and Zinnie Harris, which will then transfer, with the rest of the season's offerings, to London.

In the past 15 years, unlike the preceding era, it's been uncommon at the RSC for an actor to work his way up from the ranks to major status, the golden exception being Simon Russell Beale, who stayed with the Company for six years and matured into a great actor. Boyd's reforms look as though they will create conditions more conducive to progress along those lines and to sustained development. Last year, the RSC instituted an academy where a handpicked group of graduates got the chance to work with Declan Donnellan on their own production of King Lear, the aim being to push these fledgling performers beyond the naturalism that dominates drama school training. Rather than revive the academy, Boyd has decided to incorporate its philosophy into the central system. Accordingly, the rehearsal period for plays mounted by the Core Ensemble will be extended to around 12 weeks - a major innovation (offering roughly double the usual time in the UK) which will allow for much-needed work on voice, movement and language and for "drilling deeper" into the plays. Of course, there will also always be "windows" open for great artists such as Judi Dench, who this December appears in Stratford for the first time since 1979 as the Countess of Rousillon in All's Well That Ends Well.

Where the National Theatre's repertoire is free to roam from Aeschylus to Ravenhill, it's only proper that, at the RSC, Shakespeare should exert a magnetic pull on the entire operation. (It's an irony that Boyd's predecessor produced markedly better work when directing Chekhov and Ibsen). To see Shakespeare in a new and revealing context is wonderfully refreshing, as was proved by Greg Doran's recent Olivier Award-winning programme of Jacobean rarities and by his piquant pairing this year of The Taming of the Shrew with The Tamed Tamed, John Fletcher's robust, proto-feminist riposte. The forthcoming Spanish Golden Age season looks set to provide another arresting perspective. But what of new writing? Max Stafford-Clark has already proved himself to be a wizard at commissioning contemporary writers to react provocatively (and in a mutually illuminating way) to classic texts with his touring company, Out of Joint.

Might Boyd take a leaf out of his book? The director refers me to the New Writing season, which has the subtitle of Shakespeare's Legacy Now. "I think that should be our distinctive contribution to contemporary drama - to see the modern world through the exacting prism of Shakespeare," Boyd says. The work on the tragedies, too, will explore how they challenge our debased modern conception of the "tragic" and instead of the Bard being co-opted as "the unifying oak tree of Englishness", Shakespeare (with his Catholic background living in a Protestant hegemony) will be revealed a "dramatist of schism".

What, though, of "Adrian Noble's Legacy Now" - in some ways a tougher proposition? Boyd claims that they will make a substantial hole in the deficit this year. Still homeless in London (after the costly withdrawal from the Barbican), the Company has taken on, as interim managing director, Vikki Heywood who has the ideal experience for the task of finding the right spaces, having overseen the Royal Court's immensely inventive relocation in the West End in 1990s. Boyd thinks that while the rival Bankside Globe may have benefited from the RSC's absence in the capital during the summer months, Mark Rylance's theatre has undoubtedly "come of age" in the last couple of years. "But it can only be good for us both to flourish", he announces, each sharpening the other's distinctiveness. If the Globe's pre-existing architecture deliberately defines one aspect of its approach, the reverse may well be true of Boyd's Stratford. The new artistic director will only make a decision on the fate of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the building Noble wanted to scrap, when he sees how the work there evolves, "otherwise we could end up with, in Richard Eyre's phrase, 'a gleaming kitchen and nothing to eat in it.' "

In five years' time, if all goes well, how does Boyd reckon the Company might look? "Well," he laughs, "I'd like to have developed a brain the size of a planet. I would like the same rehearsal conditions that apply to the Core Ensemble to apply across the board. I don't want the extended training time to be just the privilege of that one group. I would also like to find some way of making things more flexible so that the ensembles are no longer venue-specific. And I'd like to see people taking a real delight in seeing the growth of the actors' courage and creativity." There may be many hiccups ahead, but by the sound of things, the RSC is back where it belongs: in the care of a pragmatic visionary.