RSC prepares for year of Shakespeare

The RSC is about to embark on its most ambitious project to date: presenting every Shakespeare play over 12 months. Paul Taylor is enthralled by the prospect
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The Independent Culture

In a recent public debate on the question "Is Shakespeare a millstone round the neck of British culture?", Michael Boyd, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, launched into a rapturous paean to the Bard. "Shakespeare is an almost bottomless source of pleasure," he declared. "I think he has the rhythm and the lyricism of Beethoven. I think he has the muscular passion of Ted Hughes. I think he has the clear-eyed metaphysic of Beckett. I think he has the stark beauty and the profound humanity of Picasso at his absolute best. I think he has the insight and wit of Matt Groening in The Simpsons and the compassionate paradoxical rigour of Philip Roth - and these are just a few of my favourite things."

Boyd is one of Shakespeare's most intelligent advocates, but if that speech resembles anything, it's the Cole Porter song - "You're the top!/ You're the Colosseum/ You're the top!/ You're the Louvre Museum/ You're a melody from a symphony by Strauss/ You're a Bendel bonnet/ A Shakespeare sonnet,/ You're Mickey Mouse" - albeit with its tongue somewhat less close to its cheek. And one reaction is to think: "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?" Shakespeare is, after all, the RSC's house dramatist.

There is now, thanks to Boyd, an unprecedented opportunity to take the full measure of Shakespeare's gifts in the Complete Works Festival, which opens at Stratford on 6 April with Nancy Meckler's staging of Romeo and Juliet and Greg Doran's Antony and Cleopatra, starring Harriet Walter and Patrick Stewart (an RSC stalwart before he boarded the USS Enterprise). In a year-long jamboree, almost everything the Bard wrote (or co-wrote) - from Two Gentlemen of Verona and the Henry VI plays to Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen - will be performed, including the poems (Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, The Phoenix and the Turtle) and the Sonnets.

The RSC will present 23 of the productions, which include a Christmas musical of The Merry Wives of Windsor with Judi Dench as Mistress Quickly, three Roman plays, two late romances in promenade stagings at the Swan, and, in spring 2007, a production of King Lear directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Sir Ian McKellen. The rest of the works will be seen in versions by a mix of foreign and home-grown troupes. We are to be treated to a South African Hamlet, a Japanese Titus Andronicus and an Indian Midsummer Night's Dream, while the visiting English outfits range from the company run by Peter Hall (the RSC's founding director), who will perform Measure for Measure, to Cardboard Citizens, the country's only professional theatre troupe for homeless people, who will give their slant on Timon of Athens.

A new 1,000-seat Stratford venue, the thrust-staged Courtyard, opens in July and will be used alongside the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Swan. Not that matters are confined to conventional spaces; Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried, will host the politics and pageantry of Henry VIII.

In its quixotic comprehensiveness, this season veers to the opposite extreme from the famous Jubilee celebrations at Stratford in 1769. Organised by the actor David Garrick, at the invitation of the local corporation, this event inaugurated the Shakespeare industry and turned the Warwickshire market town into a secular pilgrimage site. Over three days, plagued by rain, fashionable Londoners and dignitaries were treated to festivities including a Grand Parade of Shakespeare's Characters, fireworks, horse racing, a performance of Arne's oratorio Judith, and - in a temporary 1,000-seat Rotunda - a climactic rendering of Garrick's "Ode to Shakespeare": "To what blest genius of the isle,/ Shall Gratitude her tribute pay,/ Decree the festive day,/ Erect the statue, and devote the pile?... Tis he 'tis he 'The god of our idolatry!'"

That shindig helped to establish Shakespeare's global profile as this country's supreme cultural asset, though it does not seem to have struck the merry-makers as odd that not a single line of his work was performed from start to finish.

The RSC wryly acknowledges that it is the historical beneficiary of Garrick's defining gala. A few years ago, it commissioned Peter Barnes to mark its anniversary in his comedy Jubilee. That play has a rum scene in which the great 18th-century actor, undecided about whether to go ahead, is visited in his troubled sleep by Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn and Terry Hands. "We're future directors of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford," Hall says. "We've entered your dreams to thank you. From this Jubilee there'll spring a worldwide Shakespeare industry. It's a million-dollar enterprise." When Garrick says he can't take the financial risk, the directors get huffy, thinking of their jeopardised future livelihoods: "No Shakespeare Jubilee, no Memorial Theatre, no plays, no money, no prestige." * * Only a hardened cynic, though, would suspect the Complete Works Festival of being a grandiose Shakespeare industry stunt. And few would deny that the RSC deserves a celebration. It has emerged from the dark period at the end of Adrian Noble's regime when there were plans for the destruction of the Memorial Theatre, the creation of a Disneyfied "theatre village" and the effective transformation of the RSC into a publicly funded impresario of free-standing, ad hoc productions.

Under its new artistic director, the RSC has begun to relocate its soul. There's a fresh commitment to the founding principle of a dedicated long-term company of actors who are able to reveal and replenish Shakespeare's contemporary relevance by working on new plays alongside the classics. Boyd has issued two-year contracts to the actors in his marathon eight-play histories cycle.

In addition to commissioning plays that respond to Shakespeare texts from dramatists such as Roy Williams, Rona Monro and Sulayman Al-Bassam, Boyd has created a new international writer-in-residence post for Adriano Shaplin, the playwright and artistic director of the hip San Francisco-based Riot Group, whose tightly drilled, linguistically razor-sharp dramas on provocative subjects (divisions within the US military; the media's reaction to September 11) have made waves at Edinburgh festivals. Aiming to break down the barriers between author and performer, Shaplin will act as dramaturg on Boyd's histories marathon and write a custom-built play for the troupe.

Dominic Dromgoole, chief at the rival Shakespeare's Globe in London, has magnanimously described the festival as "gloriously over the top... It's a great throwback to the overweening ambition which launched this company." But, while it's clear what the RSC has to gain from doing the complete works, it remains to be seen what the complete works have to gain from being presented in this way.

Apart from the history cycle and the pairing of The Winter's Tale and Pericles, the plays are not scheduled in any particular order, chronological or thematic. That, though, is no bad thing. I suspect that, as a result, people on a Bard binge will be struck less by continuities between the pieces than by how Shakespeare's genius resists generalisation.

True, many links of many kinds can be made. You can play spot-the-anticipation. Here are a few at random: the story that frames the farcical central plot of the early Comedy of Errors looks forward to the shipwrecks and family reunions in the late plays; Tarquin's intense debate with himself foreshadows the psychological terrain of Macbeth, just as the contemplative Brutus in Julius Caesar is a gesture towards Hamlet. Or you can tot up recurring topics; jealousy (which seems to stir Shakespeare deeply) erupts in Othello, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale. Yet each work has its own wholly distinctive personality.

I don't know about "Beckett's clear-eyed metaphysic" or "the insight and wit of Matt Groening in The Simpsons" or the other features in Michael Boyd's encomium. But the chance to see the works in such haphazard profusion should impart a sharper sense than ever of certain deep aspects of Shakespeare's creative disposition. There's the continual experimentation with form and genre that springs from his profound understanding that the contradictoriness of experience forever defeats the attempt to package it into theatrical patterns.

Equally, there's his matchlessly fertile awareness that everyone is a performing self, a role-player on the stage of life. If this derives from the fact that he was a professional actor used to assuming identities, so too perhaps, in part, does the extraordinary power with which he is able to enter the minds of characters as dissimilar as Iago and Desdemona.

The impression of dazzling multiplicity looks set to be heightened by the fact that the festival deliberately juxtaposes divergent approaches to performance. Ironically, at the debate about "Shakespeare as millstone", it was the not-yet-recruited Shaplin who sounded off most scathingly. "Those who propagate and endlessly revive and reinterpret Shakespeare are guilty of necrophilia - guilty of preferring the dead over the living, of taking pleasure in the manhandling and occasional penetration of his corpse..."

It will be good to be reminded that there are cultures not bored with, not blasé about, the Bard - where they don't say: "I guess it's about time for another Hamlet," but: "Through Hamlet, I can express what I have a burning need to say." (When detractors try to dismiss Shakespeare's pre-eminence as a cunning imperialist conspiracy, one wants to ask why he has managed to mean so much to people like Karl Marx, Nelson Mandela and Aimé Césaire, the French-West Indian poet and politician who did a radical rewrite of The Tempest.) A laudable part of the festival's purpose, therefore, is to bring artists from very different backgrounds into fruitful contact.

Take the troupe in Tim Supple's multi-lingual Midsummer Night's Dream, which opens in Delhi next week. With a cast and crew recruited from across India, the production draws on performance traditions of dance, music and martial arts to restore a sense of both strangeness and reality to this overworked piece. It features actors experienced in the folk form Theyyam, a ritual in which human figures of low caste are possessed by a god. You can see how this might release fresh energies in a play where a humble weaver, transformed into an ass, finds himself lusted after by a fairy queen. Supple points out that in some parts of India, it is quite usual for actors to do a normal job in the daytime, and that amateur drama is not camp or knowing as it has become in Britain. So we can expect a production that rescues the mechanicals and the Pyramus and Thisbe interlude from the jolly, routine condescension to which they are subjected here.

That's the kind of challenge to our cultural presuppositions that the Complete Works Festival will be able to offer, and Supple, whose superb RSC production of The Comedy of Errors toured India in 1997, is just the man for the job. Deborah Shaw, who has programmed the festival, is to be congratulated on the imaginative way she has paired persons and projects.

In their devised pieces, such as Tristan & Yseult, Emma Rice and her Cornish-based company Kneehigh have demonstrated a wonderful gift for eliding the painful and the prankish, the tragic and the tricksy, and for approaching a subject from multiple perspectives (so you see the action from the point of view of the sorely tried bit-players as well as the egotistic romantic leads). So it was an inspired notion to invite them to create their own wild riff on the strange and wondrous identity crisis that is Cymbeline.

Likewise, having produced beautiful madrigal settings of the sonnets of Petrarch (some in the original Italian, some in a haunting translation by the Irish playwright Synge), Gavin Bryars is the ideal person to mastermind Nothing Like the Sun, a project on Shakespeare's Sonnets. For this RSC collaboration with Opera North, he will write a through-composed 40-minute piece and commission and arrange settings from other contemporary artists.

The festival programme makes one salivate with expectancy. If I have a criticism, it's that some of the runs are far too short. Here was a chance to draw sustained attention to plays that are normally neglected. Timon of Athens has been produced at Stratford only three times in the RSC's history; the Cardboard Citizens version runs in the festival for just five performances. The Two Noble Kinsmen has not been staged by the RSC since the stylised samurai version that opened the Swan Theatre in 1986; it is being honoured with one performance (ditto the imported accounts of All's Well That Ends Well and The Two Gentlemen of Verona). Blink and you miss them.

I am concerned, too, about the fate of some of the new work. Take Roy Williams' Days of Significance, an updated extrapolation from Much Ado About Nothing, set in binge-drinking Britain and focusing on the culture and love lives of British soldiers as they prepare to leave for Iraq, and as they return tainted with crimes. That sounds too fascinating to be confined to a run of 12 performances.

But here's my suggestion for a grand climax. Mark Rylance once told me how, at the end of a Stratford season in the early 1980s, he helped to organise a party. The invitation said that God had decided to end the world and needed to find a new Adam and Eve from the people in Shakespeare's plays. In costume and in character, the actors were called on to improvise and choose mankind's new parents. Sinead Cusack was there as Katharina from The Shrew. Helen Mirren was Cleopatra. Everyone got crazy. Think how it would be if all the actors in the festival were to repeat the experiment at a mad Bard-bash in April next year. The twist is that, this time, they sell tickets to the public. It might not be "complete", but it would certainly be the works.

The RSC Complete Works Festival runs to April 2007 (0870 609 1110;