RSC woos stars of stage (but not screen)

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The Royal Shakespeare Company is assembling a troupe of Britain's most distinguished stage actors in a return to the illustrious thespian tradition fostered by its founding artistic director, Sir Peter Hall.

Dame Judi Dench, Sir Antony Sher, Ralph Fiennes and Juliet Stevenson are among RSC alumni who have been invited to rejoin a core ensemble by the company's new director, Michael Boyd.

His approach contrasts with that of his predecessor, Adrian Noble, who was widely criticised for splitting up the RSC's historic ensemble - and trying too hard to court Hollywood stars such as Nicole Kidman and Kevin Spacey.

Mr Boyd told The Independent on Sunday that he was in discussions with a number of Britain's most respected theatrical luminaries in the hope that they would "rejoin" the RSC. His aim was to persuade them to return to the company on an annual basis where possible, rather than merely taking one-off roles.

"I am wooing them," he said. "I will be trying to make sure they end up in the heart of the company.

"It's horses for courses. Some people who are really celebrated still have that spark of madness in them where they still want to throw themselves into it [the theatre] and try something new. Those are the sort of people we are talking about."

Although anxious to play down any disagreement with Mr Noble's approach to casting, Mr Boyd distanced himself from the latter's interest in casting American film stars.

"Where we start is with our work and with people who have shown an interest in and an aptitude for our way of working," he said. "I don't think we should be attempting to chase famous folk - I'd rather work quietly and noisily where we are, and have people knocking on our door." He added that if the RSC were to try too hard to lure Hollywood stars it would "warp" its work.

The impact of Mr Boyd's behind-the-scenes courting of theatrical heavyweights will be felt by audiences at Stratford-upon-Avon and London almost immediately.

His inaugural season includes starring roles for Toby Stephens, the son of Dame Maggie Smith and the late Sir Robert Stephens, as Hamlet, and Corin Redgrave, who is to take the lead in King Lear. Also appearing will be Sir Antony Sher and Dame Judi Dench.

Mr Boyd's quest to assemble a "dream team" of established thespians will be seen by many as a return to the founding principles of the RSC. In its formative years it was a test bed for some of Britain's finest actors, including the late Lord Olivier, Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir John Gielgud, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Vivien Leigh and Richard Burton.

Sir Peter Hall, who founded the modern RSC in 1961 and whose visionary tenure as artistic director saw the "discovery" of actors including Sir Ian Richardson and Janet Suzman and the director Trevor Nunn, welcomed it, saying: "I'm sure it's the only way to make a great Shakespeare company. It's what I did originally."

Asked if Mr Boyd's choice of actors was the same one he would have made if he had been re-building the company's core ensemble, Sir Peter said: "Absolutely. They're the gang."

An RSC spokeswoman said of the rationale behind the new-look ensemble: "What we are not talking about is chasing stars in Hollywood. Michael wants people of all ages - not just youngsters - to feel that they can use the RSC as a training ground."