GET THEE TO THE PROVINCES

Like it or not, the Royal Shakespeare Company will soon be dragged from its London home by a man obsessed. David Lister, left, asks him why, while Clare Bayley finds out whether the rest of Britain wants to host the RSC
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In a famous episode of the comedy series Yes Prime Minister, Paul Eddington's PM sent the arts establishment into apoplexy by suggesting that the National Theatre should become "truly national" and move out of its London base.

The National is staying where it is. But this afternoon, actors, directors and administrative staff at Britain's other national company, the Royal Shakespeare Company, will be summoned for an address by their artistic director, Adrian Noble.

Current RSC stars, including Josie Lawrence, John Nettles and Alec McCowen, will hear Noble deliver a bombshell; and one that in content and in its tone of egalitarian zeal bears an uncanny resemblance to Paul Eddington's fictional PM.

The Royal Shakespeare Company, which for 35 years has had two year-long homes, London and Stratford-on-Avon, will from next year have Stratford as its only year-round home for the first time since 1959.

After having the Barbican and Pit theatres designed and built for its exclusive use, after battling for and winning millions of extra pounds from the City of London and Arts Council, after solemnly declaring year after year that it was happy at the Barbican and would never leave, it is doing just that.

Yes, it will maintain a presence in the capital. But it will be what Noble describes as a "winter festival", a maximum of six months of the year with plays from Stratford. The days of the RSC originating big London hits such as Nicholas Nickleby are probably over. And for six months of the year it will not stage a single play in London.

Instead, the company will play year-round at Stratford, continue its annual month-long residency in Newcastle, and crucially, set up two new residencies in cities to be decided. It will have productions on tour continuously, not least in absurdly neglected Wales and Scotland, and increase its touring abroad as Britain's cultural flagship. "For the first time," Noble will tell his staff, "there will be an RSC show on the road every week of the year."

The change this means for British theatre and for the role of our national companies cannot be overstated. It is the strongest statement yet that London cannot continue to be the epicentre of the best of British culture.

Noble said this week: "I've been asking myself, what does it mean to be a national theatre company? What are the responsibilities of a national theatre company? It's the right moment to say what do we want from our national companies and what access do we want?" He adds, in a phrase that will raise eyebrows on London's South Bank, "We will be the truly national theatre in terms of access".

In his secluded country cottage near Stratford where he lives with his wife, the RSC actress Joanne Pearce and their 18-month-old daughter, Rose, Noble looks an unlikely zealot.

In his red cardigan and with an open, guileless face, he fidgets, fiddling with the nearest inanimate object. Even with people he knows well he is shy and diffident, until his passion for his cause transports both him and his listener.

When he took over at the RSC five years ago, the passion was to re-establish the company as the best classical ensemble in the world. More attention was paid to the verse speaking and mastery of the language. His own productions proved inspired - as his current magical Midsummer Night's Dream illustrates - a pounds 3m deficit has been cleared and attendances are 88 per cent in Stratford and 78 per cent in London. Confidence is sky high.

But Noble has felt increasingly guilty over the past five years that whole swathes of the UK were not seeing the RSC. Part of his unease can be traced to his childhood. An undertaker's son, he grew up in Chichester when Laurence Olivier used it as a summer home for his National Theatre. Among productions Noble saw then were Olivier's Othello and Peter Shaffer's Royal Hunt Of The Sun. "I'm not a Londoner," he says, "and I was bloody glad and fortunate to see those plays. One of the reasons I became enamoured of the theatre was seeing star work in Chichester."

Cynics might add that the RSC's historical antagonism with the Barbican management may have fed his ideal of taking Shakespeare out of the capital, but he replies, with justice, that the new management of the Barbican is RSC-friendly and the company has recently had its backstage facilities renovated.

Noble explains his decision straightforwardly. "I felt increasingly that if our remit is to provide the nation with the best classical theatre it can afford, we have to liberate key productions from the repertoire and play different parts of the UK.

"I believe very much in the unique worth of the classical repertoire. Young people, all people, should have reasonable access to our work."

Noble is one of the few leading figures in theatre unafraid to wax lyrically and publicly about the value of Shakespeare's language to all sections of society. Imagery, he once told me, can be like a green field for an inner city child.

He is to put his ideals into practice in what is, in terms of arts planning, a remarkably short time: by next autumn. His plans have come as a surprise to the City of London, which recently doubled its grant to the RSC to pounds 3.6m. Bernard Harty, acting managing director of the Barbican, says, "I spent a lot of time negotiating the current deal. We're sorry that they feel they can't continue year-round operation despite our generous funding. We've underpinned their success for 13 years."

Being without the RSC from April to November every year from the end of next season will be a significant cultural loss for London. And, since Noble himself recognises that the cost of taking a family to Stratford to see a play could run to well over pounds 100, part of his vision must now include tackling the question of ticket prices as part of making Shakespeare more accessible.

But he has picked his moment well. With government and the Arts Council encouraging more touring by national companies and continual funding crises in the regions, a truly national presence by the RSC could not be more timely.

London will be culturally the poorer, but Noble will head the first national company that truly merits the description.

Adrian Noble says that the regions need the RSC, but do the regions want the RSC? In most of the country, the response is warm and positive, but there are dissenting voices. In Scotland, for example, directors were less than impressed by Derek Jacobi in "the Scottish play" when it toured there last year: there's a distinct feeling that the standard RP version of Shakespeare just isn't approriate north of the border; and anyway, they can do their own Shakespeare, thank you very much.

John Linklater, then drama critic for the Glasgow Herald, was so appalled by the Jacobi Macbeth that it proved to be the straw that broke the camel's back: he gave up theatre criticism the following day.

But even he is not totally against the RSC. "The RSC is less patronising in attitude to 'the regions' than other national companies, though the term 'regions' raises hackles here in Scotland because we regard ourselves as a nation, not a region.

"The fact is that the RSC is itself a regional company, based in Stratford, and with seasons in both Newcastle upon Tyne and London. That's given them an awareness of an audience outside of London. And they have involved Scottish directors and actors - Michael Boyd's production of The Broken Heart opened this week, with Iain Glen in the cast."

As artistic director of the Tron theatre in Glasgow, as well as a director for the RSC, Michael Boyd welcomes the move, but with reservations. "It's certainly fair for taxpayers all over the country to get to see the RSC. But as an aesthetic fascist, I can see all sorts of problems. When we transferred The Broken Heart from Stratford to London, we had to redesign it for a completely different theatre. When we took it to Newcastle we only had a day to put it into the new theatre, which was a farce, aesthetically speaking."

Newcastle upon Tyne has been receiving visits from the RSC for the past 20 years, an occurrence which, says the artistic director of Northern Stage, Alan Lyddiard, is celebrated as an exciting annual event. "Audiences come flocking, it's a very good thing." But he sounds a note of caution. "There can be a patronising element, a kind of colonialism, that they are bringing culture to the masses. The voice of the North-east is very strong, and the people of the region don't want to be subsumed by this southern English view of what culture should be."

In Nottingham, Ruth McKenzie at the Playhouse stresses the desire of theatre practitioners everywhere that the economics of the situation shouldn't set up a situation of competition beween the regional theatres and the national companies. "I would bitterly fight taking away a penny from the RSC to give to Nottingham. I believe we should all have enough money, and access to brilliant artists making brilliant work," she says. "The RSC is one of the few companies that Nottingham Playhouse hasn't had a relationship with, and I'd welcome it".

Meanwhile in Stratford-on-Avon, back at his alma mater rehearsing a production of Julius Caesar, Sir Peter Hall is enthusiastic. Despite being the impetus behind the RSC's move to a London base he denies any feelings of regret. "If, all those years ago, I hadn't taken the company to London, it wouldn't be the thing it is today. But I don't feel it's a backwards move, I see it as a springing forward, a very creative move which will enable them to develop more work in the country, and perhaps most importantly, internationally.

"The rest of the country and the rest of the world need it.Besides, the London theatre landscape has changed. With the Royal National Theatre, an RSC London season is probably more sensible than a permanent presence. I'm not an old boy. I don't believe in the old times just for the sake of them".

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