'Beautiful people' revel in a season of hard work: David Lister reports on the theatrical life in Stratford-upon-Avon where body and soul are severely tested

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The Independent Online
ELEVEN O'CLOCK at night and both Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and Simon Russell Beale as Richard III in the Swan had died physically unscathed.

Sonja Dosanjh, company manager with the Royal Shakespeare Company, breathed a sigh of relief. She had got through the opening weekend of the new Stratford-upon-Avon season without having to take an actor to casualty.

Over the course of a Stratford season she will rush actors to hospital at least 50 times. Severed fingers and cut eyebrows are often the result of swordfights on stage late at night for actors whose day started at 10am, rehearsing for plays coming into the repertoire later in the year.

But it is not just physical wounds that Sonja Dosanjh has to tend among the 70-strong company of beautiful people living in each other's arms for the best part of a year.

'One gets people whose hearts are broken. One is administrator and mother and nurse.' But accidental pregnancies had not yet been a problem. 'No, I think we work people too hard. They are too exhausted. Stratford is like doing national service. You have your billet and your rehearsal calls and you send out for supplies occasionally.'

But national service could never have been this good. The billets range from waterside cottages along the Avon to rooms in houses among the many properties in the town owned or rented by the RSC. And as former stars like Helen Mirren recall, the seasons are often enriched by a summer romance. As one company official put it: 'It's like a campus university. There are a lot of affairs. What else is there to do?'

Johanna Benyon, 23, in her first Stratford season is a 'play as cast' actress who must take any small role she is given. She is, at the same time, understudying every female part in Richard III. Arriving at her large but virtually bare room, helpfully subsidised to pounds 55 a week in a communal house opposite the theatres, she was excited but determined not to be distracted.

'My first night off is 31 August, so it's going to be hard work. Living here is strange at the moment, sussing people out, who you're going to form friendships with and thinking about the work as well. I've never been in a university hall of residence, and I'm the only woman among the six people in this house. I've never had to share a bathroom before. I'm very aware that romance is not the thing to do. Inevitably it causes bad vibes at a later date.'

More seasoned Stratford actors, like David Bradley (Polonius in Hamlet) will rally round and help organise the newcomers, arranging activities such as school story readings and magic shows in the town - all of which have helped end the friction that existed a few years ago when RSC actors demonstrated against the South African ambassador coming to Shakespeare's birthday celebrations.

'There is a marvellous buzz here now,' Mr Bradley says. 'You feel it as soon as you come from the bunker,' as he refers to the RSC's other home, the Barbican Centre in London.

At the start of this year's Stratford season the company does indeed have an extraordinary buzz about it. The company's main house, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, has been restored to much of its former glory. Hamlet and Richard III have taken record returns and, with the second half of the season promising Robert Stephens in King Lear and the return to the RSC after 30 years of Alec McCowen to play Prospero in The Tempest, it is on an artistic high. It is something of a shame, therefore, to hear the bizarre claim made last week by a former sponsor, British Telecom, that the RSC is 'arrogant'.

And then there is the Royal Shakespeare Theatre itself. The new season sees the unveiling of a pounds 400,000 refurbishment, with more comfortable seats, mellower colours and the restored Thirties architecture with art deco pillars in the foyer revealed, and new French designed wall-mounted light columns in the auditorium in art deco style.

(Photograph omitted)