Bombarded with criticism at home, the RSC has taken five plays to America for its first residence, amid much ado. A gala fund-raising bash attracted the celebs, even if the first night of 'Hamlet' had the audience grumbling. David Usborne reports from New York
Days in New York are precious for Kevin Kline; the box-office swoon works mostly in Hollywood, but his wife and children are here. So what induced him to spend last Friday closeted in an attic studio in Brooklyn with a group of actors he did not know, brainstorming through the Chorus speeches from Henry V?

And why was Lauren Bacall, more than a mere star but a legend in her own time, jostling with multitudes of sweaty mortals in a Manhattan ballroom a week ago tonight, posing for society photographers and submitting, even, to long stretches of polite conversation with people with English accents?

Both were doing their bit to celebrate the landing in the US from Warwickshire of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Mr Kline was dropping in on a three- week workshop series for aspiring American interpreters of the Bard, being taken by the RSC's John Barton. (Barton, Kline later confided, was the first person to teach him that "English actors don't have an inside track on doing Shakespeare".)

Ms Bacall's contribution was attendance at a $1,000-a-plate fundraising dinner for the company in the cavernous Hammerstein Ballroom. She and several hundred other guests watched as members of the visiting ensemble - the likes of Jane Lapotaire, Susannah York and Alex Jennings - offered a salad selection of abridged RSC goodies. A little Liaisons Dangereuses here, a smidgen of Romeo and Juliet there.

Why all the fuss? Hasn't the RSC been bringing productions across the US for decades already? Yes, but this visit is vastly different. In its first-ever residency in the US, it is bringing, all at once, five different plays in repertory to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) here in New York. For three weeks, beginning last Thursday, BAM has become a virtual Stratford-upon-Avon on the eastern American seaboard. The RSC will then do the same all over again at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.

"It's very important," beamed Kline in a brief break for coffee and fresh air between bouts of Henry V. "A residency here by the RSC is just long overdue. I hope that this isn't the last time it happens".

It is a tour with not inconsiderable challenges for the RSC and its boss, Adrian Noble. The dinner performance itself, 40 minutes long, was the cause of considerable pre-show jitters in the company. "A very odd gig," Noble later conceded. And the five plays on offer are not the most accessible. Aside from Hamlet, with Jennings in the lead role, there is Krapp's Last Tape, Cymbeline, Everyman and Henry VIII.

And nor was Thursday's opening of Hamlet without difficulties. Audience members were overheard either grumbling about the radical rejigging of the play's traditional flow by its young director, Matthew Warchus, or complaining that some actors were inaudible. Nor was there any standing ovation; those jumping to their feet before the first bows were taken were simply making an early dash for the doors.

And yet, what sweet respite is this foray into America for a company that is meant to be the jewel of Britain's theatrical crown, but which, over recent months, has become chipped and dulled by wave after wave of criticism. If it was not its latest productions that drew the ire of the London critics (Much Ado About Nothing and The Merry Wives of Windsor in particular), it was Mr Noble's widely savaged decision to cut back the RSC's annual commitment to the Barbican in London from 50 weeks to 30.

"What a relief to be in America," revealed Mr Noble over lunch last week in Manhattan.

With a little coaxing, he let off steam about his trials back home. "It's so disturbing, because, you know, you get a review of a play and in comes the art politics. It's just gets so tedious, quite honestly. I don't mind our plays being judged on whether people like them or don't like them. But every one of our plays becomes a political battleground."

The point of retrenching to Stratford, he said, was to allow additional touring in Britain, with Plymouth now added to Newcastle for long residencies, and to allow some refocusing.

"I believe, quite simply, that we have got too big, " he said. "Every artistic step forward for the RSC over the last 35 years has been based upon expansion. 'We must get bigger'. But I don't think that that is the most sensible thing for an artistic organisation. The rather lumbering RSC needed to be modified."

Noble is not alone in feeling bruised. It has been harsh on the ensemble, too. Paul Freeman, one of its current crop of RSC "stars", who plays Claudius in Hamlet, also showed his wounds.

"I don't understand the continual criticism," he said at his hotel. "It affected us terribly in London. When we arrived there was this enormous barrage of criticism. There seemed to be this deep well of resentment about the way this large body of work is being handled politically. Frankly, it was very difficult to deal with."

While Freeman offered sympathy for Noble - "I think the job's too much for one human being" - he also had his own questions about RSC management. Coming to America is all well and good, he said, but absenting the RSC from London for the summer season "seems totally absurd. When all the tourists are in London, there isn't any London RSC show any more. I haven't heard anybody able to defend it."

But productions in the capital, Freeman went on, should be in the West End, not in the Barbican. "It just doesn't work. I don't know why they stay there." Aside from the practical obstacles of car parking and finding restaurants to repair to after the show, the place is poisoned, said Freeman, by disaffection among the technical staff.

Summing up, Freeman noted: "It's very dispiriting that the technical staff don't seem to care, very dispiriting that there seems to have been this total cock-up as far as the seasonal thing is concerned and the third thing is this constant, constant criticism."

For everyone, coming to America is a chance for a change of air and fun. "It's so stimulating for all our company," said Noble. "It's not unlike why an athlete wants to go to the summer Olympics - it has to do with being up against other world-class athletes and we want to be here for that reason."

Whether America will prove any more kindly to the RSC remains to be seen. Mr Kline would like to think that any restlessness in the audience at the opening of Hamlet had nothing to do with the players.

"American audiences have forgotten how to watch theatre, they don't know the etiquette," he said, before returning to work on Henry V. "They need short cuts, MTV soundbites."

But the critics were apparently not much impressed either. This may bode ill for the RSC, which, for Hamlet alone, has 20,000 seats to fill at BAM.

Most damaging was the review by Ben Brantley in The New York Times this weekend. "Less a thorough-going interpretation than a series of noisy distractions," he wrote of Mr Warchus's creation.

Brantley complained of famous speeches being "tossed off at such speed as to be incomprehensible," and of Derbhle Crotty's Ophelia being "inaudible". Faring little better, Jennings was described by Brantley as having cavorted in the play's opening scene "like a dyspeptic refugee from a Noel Coward comedy".

Yikes. Much more of that and Mr Noble might quickly find himself yearning for home again.