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Waking up in Bardland

On the morning of March 17th 2020 I checked the website of the Royal Shakespeare Company: business as usual. Great! But by teatime government policy on public events had become drastically more stringent and I had an email saying that they were closing their doors. It was like having a part of my being, a second cultural limb, torn off. The first was the shutting down of sport – in general, but concerning Burnley Football Club in particular. I realise that some people will find this odd, but these two institutions have similar meanings for me. In each case I go back a long way with them: I’ve been a regular at the RSC since 1970 and at Burnley since 1953. In both cases I’ve become much more than a customer; I’m a supporter, identifying with the prosperity of the institution rather than with whether they give me value for money. Actually I’m a member of the RSC and a shareholder at Burnley, but these formalities matter little compared to the indissoluble bond of support which is kind of mutual ownership because I belong to them as they belong to me and we’re in it forever, through the lows as well as the highs. And in each case we’ve curiously ended up in roughly the same place after all these years. When I started supporting Burnley they were in the middle of the top division, which they were when the league was suspended in 2020. And when I first went to the RSC it was to a controversial and innovatory production of King John (in that case directed by my contemporary “Buzz” Goodbody and starring Patrick Stewart whom I got to know through cricket and the world got to know through Star Trek) and the last production I saw in 2020 was the same play, this time with a woman in the title role.

Given the comings and goings of audience participation as a fashion it can be said that a supporter in his time plays many parts. I’ve danced on stage (in A Winter’s Tale). I’ve raised a good laugh in my dialogue with the porter in Macbeth. I’ve had the best two laughs of the night in my interactions with Sancho Panza’s wife in Don Quixote. I’ve had helmets and roses land on me and the man next to me have a fit in Henry VI. I’ve been called away to deal with an emergency in Henry V and then given free tickets to a subsequent performance by the company. I’ve been to seminars on the plays and reviewed them but also seen myself quoted in other people’s reviews. I’ve sat in the same row as the Prince of Wales and a prime minister.

Having said that the normal experience of the RSC in the middle twenty years of our lives was something like this: Get home. Have sandwich. Pace around waiting for babysitter. Dash down to Stratford (twenty minutes). Park. Power walk. Take seat. Fall asleep (briefly). Then wake up in Bardland where an investment banker called Antonio is concerned that he might be depressed or Roman officials called Flavius and Marullus are trying to question what seems to be a group of Aston Villa supporters or Sir Humphrey Appleby is trying to explain Salic Law to Henry V. Or King John, who seems to have turned into a laddette, is gulping Chardonnay. Bardland is a foreign country where time and race and gender work in different ways.

All true supporters know the strengths and weaknesses of their organisation and an understanding of the RSC must start with an acknowledgment of two enormous assets and two perennial problems. The first asset is a global brand name equivalent in its way to the likes of Oxford University or Manchester United. When the company claims, as it has from time to time, that it is the world’s best it’s a fairly silly claim, but it’s not ridiculous – and it’s enough to attract talent (often returning talent) from all over the world for a fraction of their usual wages. Examples in recent years include Judy Dench, Patrick Stewart and John Lithgow. It also attracts visitors from all over the world.

The second, the more tangible asset, is the quality of the physical plant. I don’t think most visitors realise how new the three theatres are. The oldest is the Swan (1986) which usually shows classic, non-Shakespeare, though this is not a rigid rule. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre dates from 2010 and normally has Shakespeare in repertory and there is a new version of The Other Place which opened in 2016 and specialises in the more modern or experimental. The approximate capacities are 400, 1100 and 200. I cannot stress too highly how good these theatres are. It is an opinion when Sir Anthony Sher says that the Swan is the best theatre in the world, but it’s a fact that when they demolished the main theatre as an auditorium with a proscenium arch and replaced it with a “thrust” space the maximum distance an audience member could be from the stage plummeted from sixty seven metres to twenty seven. Given what I am used to I find most London theatres very unsatisfactory and badly designed.

The Company is in many respects a public institution which, to different degrees depending on management and the mood of the times, is a problem. In fact, subsidy from the public purse last year was only 15% (of £86.5 million). It’s in profit and it’s fairly easy to imagine survival on a commercial basis, but it has in essence always been conceived as a public institution since Sir Peter Hall created it out of the old Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1960-61. I don’t think that justifying that level of subsidy is particularly difficult given the external benefits to education and tourism, but it does make the institution the kind of multi-purpose, multi-criteria institution – like a university only more so – that generates a permanent contest over purpose. An important part of this is geographical: the subsidy is from a national purse, but most of the benefits accrue locally. The RSC has normally done a season in Newcastle and there is no problem there, but what about London? The arts councils have tended to say that it must have a London presence – and the National Theatre has tended to say that it shouldn’t. For what it’s worth I think that London has quite enough national institutions and that if you want to see the RSC you should go to Stratford, which, by happy coincidence, is in the middle of the country. But you are entitled to point out that I would say that being a Warwickshire resident. Put the RSC alongside the Warwick University Arts Centre and an impressive range of town and city theatres and it’s fairly easy to claim that Warwickshire is one of the best places in the world to live for theatre buffs.

The other problem is the audience. I have been in audiences for theatre and opera all over the world and and I’d argue that the main theatre at Stratford is the extreme case of the eclecticism of the audience causing a problem for producers. At one end of the spectrum are straight plays in New York where sometimes the entire audience seems to be mature, educated, liberal and Jewish. But in Stratford there’s a huge diversity including at least three main groups: members, tourists and school parties. The members are mature and local. I don’t know whether I’m typical, but I’ve seen every Shakespeare play on the currently accepted list at least twice, ranging from Timon at two to Dream and Hamlet at countless. I’ve also seen all the plays currently listed as part-Shakespeare such as Two Noble Kinsmen, Edward III, Thomas More etc. My peer group are not going to want to see what many people would regard as “traditional” productions, characterised by tights and received pronunciation – we want Hamlet to be set in the White House or the Exxon boardroom. But we’re sitting next to customers who have never seen a Shakespeare play before and may never see one again. Their attendance is on a tick list with Oxford and Stonehenge.

If you read the thousands of opinions on this subject on Tripadvisor the problem seems to diminish. Certainly there are those which say, “They should have told us they weren’t doing it properly before they sold us the tickets”. But they are outvoted by those who say things like, “They shifted it from Venice to Las Vegas and it was great”. However I think there are a lot of shy conservatives in audiences. I have been well aware sitting there of shock and dissatisfaction among American tourists and it’s very common for them to disappear at the interval. Box having been ticked ? Or muttering, “So the medieval king of England was a black guy? – I don’t think so!”. Meanwhile, earnest young Japanese, armed with parallel texts, soldier on. My own opinion is that radically new settings generally work very well in the comedies and only slightly less well in the tragedies, but more care is needed with the histories and the Roman plays. I remember, for example, a production of Coriolanus set in the costumes of the Napoleonic Wars and using guns. But the whole point is that Coriolanus dominates by physical prowess. As Thomas Hobbes pointed out, once the weakling can shoot the strongman everything changes. Julius Caesar is quite different and can be modernised: note how Shakespeare has Cassius stress the physical weakness of the great general, his epilepsy and his poor swimming. A good production needs logic and a careful balancing of accessibility and subtlety.

The vices of a bad production can be normally be diagnosed as the excesses of two virtues, originality and relevance. I think the question to ask is whether the director has made an effort to be original or relevant per se. If it comes naturally it usually works. Thus one might have always thought that the “Athens” in Dream is code for Clitheroe where some Lancastrians imagine the Bard spent his “missing” years. Or perhaps you’ve always wanted to see Coriolanus played in prep school uniforms with wooden weapons, influenced by Lord of the Flies. Or you think that Beatrice and Benedict would sound best as Jamaicans? These are all my own imaginings and they come to me naturally. It’s when you strive to be original or relevant that quality deteriorates, Normally this isn’t necessarily or merely error. If you think of it in terms of public choice theory it is obvious that directors have careers and aspirations that make them wish to be noticed by the critics and managements which can enhance those careers and this can produce something very different from what the Stratford punters would enjoy. Again, the parallel with football works because it is often the case with Premiership teams that the fans would love a good cup run whereas managers see such a possibility as stoking up problems for them with few career benefits.

When it comes to overt, even aggressive relevance the biscuit must be taken by Melly Still’s “Brexit” Cymbeline which opened in 2016 before the referendum. It also made Cymbeline a woman. It was an undoubted success, well reviewed and imitated, but I thought it was didactic, frenetic and tedious. Brexit in general quickly became a bore with little jokes inserted which assume the audience are metropolitan elite remainers. To state the obvious: I do not go to the theatre to be lectured on the European Union by people who know a great deal less about it than I do. For that matter, nobody ever needs to stress the relevance of Julius Caesar or Henry IV Part 1 to an understanding of politics because the Bard’s mind was a great deal subtler than those of most of his interpreters.

But the Brexit Cymbeline was far from being the worst production I’ve ever seen – it had a bit of fizz about it and it was only Cymbeline after all. That particular award goes to Tim Albery’s 1996 Macbeth, nicknamed by some members the “B & Q Macbeth” because it seemed to be mainly about cheap artifacts including seven doors and a lot of boxes. Actors came in and out of the doors and delivered their lines motionless and deadpan. In this case I do align with all the critics; the Independent remarked that Roger Allam played Macbeth as if he were Sir Geoffrey Howe. Albery’s operatic direction has occasionally been praised for its achievement of “stillness”, but we took teenagers and we did not want stillness. It was in sharp contrast to the Macbeth my parents took me to in Manchester in the fifties with a terrifying Barbara Jefford as Lady Macbeth. Originality is not enough.

When you’ve watched as much Shakespeare as I have you form a definite impression of which plays usually work and which are far more difficult to do well. Two hundred years ago Hazlitt gave us the doctrine of the “four great tragedies” which marked the peak of our literary tradition and, perhaps partly because of expectations, they seem to have a much higher failure rate than other plays. I’ve never seen a better Macbeth than the one I saw as a child and I’ve never been much taken with Othello either. Hamlet fares better, but Lear is the worst of the lot. There’s been many a survey that shows that people believe that Lear is the greatest of the plays and I even conducted one myself with the same result. But, even though I’m very reluctant to agree with Tolstoy I have sat entirely unmoved by rantings on the blasted heath and by eyes being put out and so on. I thought it was just me, but I felt vindicated by Trevor Nunn’s 2007 production with Ian McKellen in the title role. It was extremely well reviewed and transferred to the West End. I thought it was the most plausible and coherent version I’d seen. But McKellen played Lear as a man with dementia, reducing any moral and spiritual meaning the play is supposed to possess to a chemical phenomenon. I rest my case. Perhaps one should also remember Hazlitt’s less often quoted argument that these great plays should never be produced because no actors could ever rival the quality of one’s own imagination!

The histories and comedies seem to fare much better. I’ve never seen a bad production of Henry IV, particularly Part I and Dream seems to work every time, whatever they do with it. Some of the bard’s earlier and less highly rated works can also be wonderful. Comedy of Errors may be trivial, but it is also slick, clever and naturally pacy. Henry VI can be an amazing experience, particularly if you see all three parts, nine hours, in one day. (Incidentally, both times I’ve seen the full trilogy the king himself was played by a Nigerian actor – a sort of revenge for Olivier’s Othello.)

Old men forget – most of the stuff, but in theatre as in football we tend to remember the really good and the really bad. So having mentioned some of the worst, let me enjoy remembering the best. The single most powerful scene I ever saw was Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet in 1992 in Gertrude’s chambers, his mother played by Jane Laportaire. It is the scene in which Hamlet “accidentally” kills Polonius and in it the audience became Hamlet, our world destroyed, our mother unforgivable, our despair making us cross unthinkable lines, our madness disguised by a lightness of tone. “Goodnight, mother” says Hamlet and we get everything he feels, however bleak and weird it is. Brilliant, the best Hamlet I ever saw. Most critics agreed, but several carped. I put this down to a kind of “Beckham syndrome”: Branagh had become too much of a celeb for many people’s liking.

In second place in my affections among the greatest productions I ever saw is a fairly uncontroversial choice since it received immense publicity and has had books and many scholarly articles devoted to it. It is Bill Alexander’s 1984 Richard III with Anthony Sher in the title role. It built on a single word in the text, the description of the king as a “spider”, and turned it into something original. Richard famously says, “I am not built for sport”, but Sher turned crutches into weapons of speed and power, vaulting the stage in a single bound and clearly capable of laying out enemies on the way, becoming a terrifying physical and spiritual presence, both human and inhuman, the paralympian who can destroy the Olympians. Nobody who saw it ever forgot it – or ever associated crutches with “disability” again.

But the production at the very top of my list is a version of the Dream. It is not Peter Brook’s famous 1970 version, stylish and original though that was, but Ron Daniels’ 1984 production. I can still remember the cast and how good they were: Juliet Stevenson as Titania and Hippolyta, Mike Gwilym as Oberon and Theseus. Jane Carr as Hermia, Harriet Walter as Helena, Geoffrey Hutchings as Bottom. It did not strive desperately for originality, but had full confidence in the play, its atmosphere and its humour. It made you believe in magic. We saw it twice and I would happily have watched it half a dozen times but for constraints of time and money.

A good production needs a clear and coherent overall vision which combines setting, design, music, costume and speech styles. But great productions also require great acting, the sort of performance which is well beyond the normal competence. Sir Anthony Sher has provided this far more often than anyone else in my time, but even he hasn’t always hit the heights: he was a fairly ordinary Macbeth in my opinion. One thing I find fascinating in this respect is the relationship between performance on stage and achievement in other media. There are plenty of successful all-rounders: Judy Dench, Juliet Stevenson, Harriet Walter and Patrick Stewart , for example, have all been fine RSC players with excellent screen careers. But you would never guess from his highly competent screen performances ( The History Man, Mrs. Brown, Shakespeare in Love . . .) how great an actor Sher is. Similarly Alexandra Gilbreath has been the consistently outstanding female performer in the company this century, but her screen performances probably peaked as Archie’s dodgy girlfriend in Monarch of the Glen. At the other end of the scale John Nettles played fifty one parts for the company between 1976 and 1981 and I can remember him being there, but that’s about the extent of my memory. Yet he went on to become arguably the most seen actor in history, given his longevity in Midsomer Murders, how many countries it’s been shown in and how often it is repeated.

I am grateful that I grew up near Burnley whose team offered football at its best, becoming champions of England when I was thirteen. And in a similar way I’m grateful to have lived my adult life within easy distance of Stratford. It has offered an extraordinary variety of theatrical experiences, good and bad. I have seen an American Henry IV and Indian versions of Dream and Much Ado. I’ve seen dozens of new plays and revived classics. I’ve taken children and grandchildren to Dickens and Dahl, to C.S.Lewis and David Walliams. I have only one major complaint about the extent of this variety. It is about the presentation of Shakespeare, but it crystalised in a production of Ibsen. It was the 1994 production of Peer Gynt, adapted and directed by John Barton. I had loved Grieg’s incidental music for the play since I was a child and was looking to hearing it for the first time in its proper context only to be informed in the programme that they had commissioned new music because the Grieg was “a cliché“. So far as I am concerned that is throwing out the baby and keeping the bathwater because it’s great music and a crap play. The company does pretty good music, but I cannot recall a single instance where they have used any of the hundreds of wonderful pieces that Shakespeare has inspired. Why not use Mendelsohn for Dream, for example? They mutter about detracting from the text when asked, but I’ve never accepted the argument. They owe us at least a season where the best of the music is actually used. It would be a winner!

Lincoln Allison March 2020

(An edited version of this essay was published by The Critic in April 2020.)