RSC chief considers Spanish practice with nights of audience segregation

Audiences could be segregated for a season of 17th- century Spanish plays after the Royal Shakespeare Company discovered that was how they were originally seen.

Research has shown that while Shakespeare's dramas were all performed by men, in Spain women were allowed to act - but the audiences were not allowed to mix.

The RSC is now exploring the possibility of following suit, perhaps with dedicated segregated nights to avoid the risk of losing those people who refuse to sit in a theatre without their loved one at their side.

Michael Boyd, who announced his inaugural season as the company's artistic director yesterday, said the experiment might be revealing. "I think it will totally transform the notion of the aside."

Other than this, the season is dominated by the notion of back to basics, with an ensemble of nearly 40 actors getting twice the usual rehearsal period to dedicate themselves to studying how to speak Shakespeare's language. Sir Peter Hall, the RSC's founder, will be one of the coaches.

Not everyone may need it. Dame Judi Dench is returning to the RSC after 20 years to appear in All's Well That Ends Well, Corin Redgrave is to play Lear and Antony Sher will be Iago in Othello.

Toby Stephens, son of Dame Maggie Smith and the late Sir Robert Stephens, is also returning to the company for the first time in nine years to play Hamlet.

"I think the RSC has had a hard time for quite a while now," Stephens said, "but I think it's important for British theatre for the RSC to redevelop itself and find a new confidence. It feels fresh to me [under Michael Boyd] and that's really part of the reason I wanted to do [Hamlet]."

He said he had no fears of emulating the actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who dropped out of a National Theatre production of the play apparently haunted by the image of his own father, the former poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis.

The RSC, which has been without a London base since leaving the Barbican last year, will take a new home in the capital next year, the company confirmed yesterday.

But plans for redevelopment of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon have been slowed while Michael Boyd makes his own plans for the company. He took over last year after Adrian Noble quit suddenly amid intense criticism.

Long-term plans include a rare season of all Shakespeare's plays, performed by the RSC and visiting companies, in a couple of years' time. Michael Boyd said he hoped to persuade "the RSC diaspora" of former performers to return for future productions.

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