The RSC at 50: The highs and lows of the world's greatest Shakespeare ensemble

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As the RSC celebrates its 50th birthday and settles into its new £112m home, Michael Coveney looks back on half a century of trials and triumphs, and wonders what the next 50 years might hold

The Queen officially opened the new Royal Shakespeare Company home in Stratford-upon-Avon on Friday 4 March, but the company's 50th birthday celebrations get seriously underway this month, with the first previews of artistic director Michael Boyd's new production of Macbeth, and the birthday weekend of the house poet a couple of weeks later.

These past few weeks have been a period of trial and assessment, with performances of last year's King Lear and Romeo and Juliet playing in the re-built and refurbished Royal Shakespeare Theatre by the Avon; the Swan, Stratford's second theatre, preparing to launch Shakespeare's "lost" play Cardenio; and locals and tourists getting used to the new theatre and its strange new viewing tower.

It feels like a new start. As far as the acting company is concerned, there is little connection in Boyd's company with the great names of the past, not even an Ian Holm or a Judi Dench to raise the ensign. But what do we now expect of the Royal Shakespeare Company, an enterprise more or less forced on the ever-diffident British public by a young and ambitious Peter Hall in 1960? What is its place and function in our current theatre ecology?

The new theatre, which opened on time and on budget at a cost of £112.8m (half from the Arts Council, the rest from sponsorship and subscription, with a few million still to raise), is an open-thrust stage growing out of the old proscenium, hugged by an audience of 1,000 people on three sides and steep levels, no one seated more than 15 metres from the action.

Actors and customers share the same space. And so far as we can tell from recent RSC productions in its temporary Stratford home across the road, the similarly thrust-stage Courtyard, over the past three years, all RSC actors and directors share the same aesthetic, which is, roughly speaking: Shakespeare spoken as "unrhetorically" as possible, sense before beauty; costumes mixed and matched with ancient and modern; and lots of wires, trapezes, descendant braziers and flags and halberds to fill up the cubic volume.

The fact is that for some years, the RSC has been fulfilling a function rather than setting the world alight. Since its defection from the Barbican Centre nearly 10 years ago – from a theatre designed and built to its own requirements, and leased on a peppercorn rent by the City – it has had no consistent London profile and has been consistently outgunned by the National Theatre, with whom it shares more or less equal public funding (around £18m).

In addition, it can no longer claim bragging rights in the Bard. You see Shakespeare productions just as good, often better, these days at the Globe in Southwark, the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park (although that venue is oddly offering only a "Pericles for kids" this summer) and in the West End under Michael Grandage's direction at the Donmar Warehouse or on Kevin Spacey's watch at the Old Vic.

The hot Shakespeare ticket of the summer will not be anything at Stratford, but David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Josie Rourke's revival of Much Ado about Nothing at Wyndham's Theatre, near Leicester Square. The RSC offers little that sets the pulse racing – on paper, at least – besides Patrick Stewart's Shylock in Rupert Goold's new look at The Merchant of Venice, and two rather peculiar re-heats of early RSC hits, Pinter's The Homecoming in the Swan and – this could be a big mistake – an attempt to emulate Peter Brook's 1964 RSC Marat/Sade, one of the greatest productions of the modern era, which came out of a dedicated period in the early RSC "Theatre of Cruelty" season. The RSC really was, for a time, in the avant-garde.

Peter Hall articulated two guiding principles in its foundation: the formation of a permanent ensemble company along the European lines of the Comédie Française in Paris, the Berliner Ensemble or even the Moscow Art Theatre; and a determination to mix Shakespeare with contemporary playwrights, so that the Stratford poet would be released from hidebound traditionalism and new work proper in an epic context. Nobody asked him to do this.

In 1960, plans were going ahead at last for a National Theatre. Hall faced implacable opposition from that rightly concerned lobby, led by the artistic director designate, Laurence Olivier. But Hall was cannily picking up the rather hit-and-miss summer festival at Stratford, where the first Memorial Theatre had opened only in 1879, and forging a new company altogether; Olivier's National was going to be a library of world classics, something entirely different.

The first Stratford theatre had been destroyed by fire in 1926. The new theatre, within which the current Royal Shakespeare Theatre sort of nestles, opened in 1932, designed by Elisabeth Scott (great-niece of George Gilbert Scott) and affectionately known as "the jam factory". The interior resembled a cinema, and actors and directors, occasionally the audience, complained about the remoteness of the balcony and the "undemocratic" feel of the place.

Still, the summer festival gathered momentum once Fordham Flower became chairman of the governors in 1944, the fourth member of his local brewery-owning family to hold that position in succession, and the theatre became more aligned with the leading actors in London under the 1950s artistic administrations of Anthony Quayle and Glen Byam Shaw.

Peter Hall, the new "boy wonder" was making his way in their world. There's a wonderful photograph of actors in the 1959 company linking arms through the Avonside gardens: Hall with his first wife, Leslie Caron, plus Charles Laughton, Vanessa Redgrave, Mary Ure, Paul Robeson, Peggy Ashcroft and Laurence Olivier. Hall's genius was to bridge a gap with that generation and the new, and to bring in Peter Brook and Michel Saint-Denis, a French director who plugged into the European tradition.

The other factor in the new RSC – the Memorial Theatre was re-christened the Royal Shakespeare Theatre – was a London home. Hall secured tenure of the Aldwych Theatre. He had a core ensemble of 16 actors on three-year contracts, and many of them shuttled between London and Stratford playing Shakespeare alongside (in London only) Harold Pinter, John Whiting and Peter Weiss.

It was crucial to Hall's ideal that Ian Holm, for instance, should play Richard III in the landmark Wars of the Roses sequence – the first full cycle of Shakespeare's history plays – as well as Lenny in Pinter's The Homecoming. Similarly, Paul Scofield played a landmark King Lear in 1962 that had a granite, Beckett-like ferocity and harshness.

Shakespeare, in the words of the influential Polish critic Jan Kott, truly was our contemporary. And as Holm played Lenny in 1965, so David Warner, then an unknown, played the first "student" Hamlet in Hall's exciting production; I saw that performance when I was a schoolboy and sneaked back in a couple of times for the second half, without paying, just to feel the electricity. It changed my life.

Glenda Jackson was Warner's Ophelia, the first sexual psychotic reading, I'm sure, and she was a linchpin in the experiments hatching in London in the Theatre of Cruelty seasons directed by Brook and his iconoclastic associate, the American Charles Marowitz. You felt the RSC was marking out new territory, using Shakespeare as a launch pad for daring new work in a way you don't feel today. Nobody's fault: times change, and you could say that not even the Moscow Art was all that meaningful once they'd dealt with the urgent business of Chekhov, Bulgakov and Gorky.

Peter Brook's gymnasium production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1970 was a watershed. It toured the world and established the company in every major capital. Trevor Nunn had succeeded Hall as artistic director in 1968; Brook split to work abroad while Nunn often brilliantly consolidated, expanding the operation primarily as a classical company. New work was shuffled off to the new studio premises of The Other Place in Stratford and the Donmar in London.

Looking back, you can see the start of a company justifying its existence rather than crying out for it. The new London home in the Barbican had been mooted as early as 1965 and the move into the city planned for early 1970, but it stuttered to a halt in the economic recession. The eventual opening of the Barbican in 1982 gave a lift to the home base, and Stratford in the 1980s was renewed with Antony Sher's speedy, crippled Richard III, Kenneth Branagh's breathtaking Henry V, Michael Gambon's great, saggy-jawed King Lear, Juliet Stevenson's bitingly translucent Rosalind and Peggy Ashcroft's majestic Countess in Nunn's reinvention of All's Well That Ends Well in the Crimean War.

Nunn shared the artistic directorship with Terry Hands from 1978 before taking over alone in 1986. Nunn's bequest – apart from two blockbuster London and New York hits which he co-directed with John Caird, Nicholas Nickleby (1980) and Les Misérables (1985) – was the Swan Theatre in Stratford, funded by the American philanthropist Frederick Koch and designed, Elizabethan-style, within the shell of the old Memorial Theatre, with a view to furthering investigation into the Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline repertoire.

There's no question the actors, and often the audience, preferred the Swan to the larger auditorium next door, and the thrust stage mentality took hold big-time. The new Stratford theatre feels like the Swan writ large, and the signing of a five-year contract to bring the Stratford repertoire to the similarly designed Roundhouse in London (from 2012) means that the days of flat, pictorial design, and the proscenium arch (it remains in Stratford, but we can't tell yet to what artistic effect) are numbered.

The RSC's fourth artistic director, Adrian Noble, emerged in the late 1980s before being appointed in 1991. He proved a brilliant classical director – as good, on his day, as Nunn or Hands – but the new writing side of things didn't perk up and he became obsessed with leaving the Barbican, fragmenting the company's operation, issuing ever shorter contracts, touring, tearing down the Stratford theatre altogether (and starting again) and opening a "Shakespeare village" by the Avon where folk could try on helmets and hempen consumes while joshing comely wenches.

At this point in its history I advocated the RSC being closed down as then constituted, perhaps re-opening with two directors, three playwrights and 20 actors on contract, based in Stratford. When I heretically reiterated my concerns, shortly before Noble's departure, at a Shakespeare Birthday lunch, I was publically branded a "traitor" by the distinguished professor Stanley Wells, then a prominent RSC governor and vice-chairman.

But a traitor to what? I could no longer reconcile what the RSC did with what it was founded to do. The early RSC published Flourish, a newspaper in which RSC directors argued with each other and addressed critical points of view. Under Noble, there emerged a very different regime, with actors compelled to sign gagging orders.

The RSC's first managing director, Chris Foy, recruited from Unilever with no theatre experience, instigated cuts and redundancies with little consultation with the staff. The one thing you can say about Stratford is that it has probably the finest technical plant – scene-building, wardrobe, armoury and practical training – in Europe. And it's staffed by locals, many of them RSC "lifers".

The board seemed supine while this cankerous nonsense carried on. The Barbican was vacated in 2002, but Noble's attempt to pull down the Stratford theatre was readjusted (at no less expense) to plans for what we have now. The repertoire system – you used to be able to see five or six Shakespeare plays in a week in Stratford – was more or less dropped; tourists stopped coming in droves. Plays would open in November, or have press nights in Easter week.

How the Arts Council allowed all this to happen I shall never know. Taxpayers' money was wasted, and no one was made accountable. For all the upbeat noises coming out of Stratford these days, that period casts a long shadow. The trouble is, there's no going back. The juggernaut goes on, with its attendant sponsorship, educational programmes (very good they are too, and much more central to Boyd's plans) and administrative pyramids.

In this situation, what Michael Boyd has achieved is remarkable. He is generous, unsecretive, and the actress Juliet Stevenson says he has removed the glass partition that separated management from actors under Noble. His permanent ensemble is shaping up well, though there are too few outstanding actors beyond Greg Hicks, Mariah Gale and the emergent Jonjo O'Neill.

But that's probably okay. Trevor Nunn made his name in 1966 with a thrown-together stop-gap production of The Revenger's Tragedy by Cyril Tourneur featuring the all-unknown Alan Howard, Ian Richardson and Patrick Stewart. This proved that spontaneity and low budgets, the mothers of invention, are often the best policy. The RSC was first identified as a unique company by Kenneth Tynan with The Comedy of Errors in 1962, another last-minute gap-filler, which returned to the Stratford repertoire for several seasons.

When Nunn mounted his Comedy of Errors in 1976, its showbiz sparkle presaged what was to come. The former RSC literary manager Colin Chambers wrote in 2004 that the company had virtually abandoned its trademark anti-decorative, actor-based approach in favour of a Broadway-style "enhanced" physical presentation powered by advances in technology and the scenography of designers such as Bob Crowley and John Napier.

You couldn't say this was true of all Nunn productions, such as the superb Macbeth starring Judi Dench and Ian McKellen. And the "flashiness" of, say, Terry Hands's great Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Derek Jacobi in a translation by Anthony Burgess, showed the RSC at its best in terms of design and in-depth company acting with an edge.

But the schism between intimate truth and gestural declamation has grown. Ironically, Shakespeare reconciles these wild opposites in almost every play, and the orthodox view (not shared by Peter Hall) is that the thrust stage is the best way of solving this.

Boyd was not Noble's obvious successor. Many thought the job would go to Gregory Doran, the long-term RSC associate and partner of Antony Sher. But it's a mark of Boyd's generosity that he's kept Doran by his side as chief associate, and given him his head with some outstanding productions and textual work – he's the main link with John Barton, Peter Hall's closest academic collaborator, and the Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate, the new RSC chairman and editor of the company's "Complete Works" volume.

Those "Complete Works" were performed in 2006: 37 plays, 15 of them produced by the RSC. The size of the project was a bit of a smokescreen, but the ensemble emerged leaner and stronger. Then, at the end of 2010, Boyd's commission of a musical version of Roald Dahl's Matilda – book by sometime RSC writer Dennis Kelly, music and lyrics by Aussie cabaret star Tim Minchin – paid off with reviews that promise West End success and beyond.

The focus narrows to the new theatre now. But there's a long way to go before the RSC wins back our full confidence. Will the Roundhouse be confirmed as a permanent London base? Will the frantic new play commissioning – best so far is David Greig's Macbeth sequel, Dunsinane – result in work that restores that equilibrium between Shakespeare done as "new" and new plays done as "classics"? And will we love the new theatre as much as we loved the "jam factory," for all its faults?

'Macbeth' previews in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre from 16 April, 'Cardenio' is running in the Swan now. The season runs until 5 November (0844 800 1110; www.rsc.org.uk)

Five seminal RSC productions

The Wars of the Roses (1963)

Peter Hall, John Barton and Clifford Williams condensed Shakespeare's history plays into a series of dramas which have gained almost mythic status. There were riveting performances from Peggy Ashcroft as the vengeful Queen Margaret, Ian Holm as a smiling, calculating Richard and David Warner as the saintly Henry. Ironically, Peter Hall, after helping to cut Shakespeare for this, was to become evangelical about never cutting the Bard.

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1970)

Peter Brook's production set the play in a white box and had its principal characters on trapezes. It redefined how theatre could be used. But Brook, one of the company's most visionary directors, was not long for the RSC. He was to leave England forever, founding a new company in Paris.

Old Times (1971)

Sir Peter Hall and Harold Pinter had a long and close working relationship. And this beguiling production of Pinter's play about memory was one of the RSC's most triumphant embraces of new writing. Colin Blakely, Vivien Merchant (Pinter's then wife) and Dorothy Tutin starred.

The Comedy of Errors (1976)

Trevor Nunn at his most brilliantly imaginative turned Shakespeare's farce into a musical. The tunes were catchy, Judi Dench sang, and it was a great example of how the RSC had developed a zanily comic streak.

Hamlet (2008)

David Tennant, fresh from 'Doctor Who', brought a new audience in to Stratford. And they were captivated by his electrifying portrayal of Hamlet as a wilful adolescent for the "whatever" generation. Mariah Gale as Ophelia caught the eye as a future star.

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