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RSC at Fifty: Radio and Audio Review 23rd April 2011

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Early Radio Drama Performance

The Royal Shakespeare Company has gutted its main theatre at Stratford Upon Avon and replaced the Odeon style cinema interior opened by the Prince of Wales in 1932 with a new ‘thrust stage.’

Opera glasses will no longer be needed. Apparently it is the same scale as Shakespeare’s original Rose theatre.

One of the founding directors, Sir Peter Hall,  has his doubts about the new fashion and enthusiasm for compressed space and performance inside the audience.

It’s alright marching on, but how do you retreat? And when an actor does a soliloquy of course he’s going to be speaking intimately to some of the audience, but others will only be able to see his back.

For the current artistic director, Michael Boyd,  the new space will mean that playing Shakespeare will be connecting with one thousand different points of view.

In The RSC at Fifty, reporter and presenter James Naughtie sounded like he had been let out of the Today programme to play. What frolics and fun he had.

Dame Judi Dench charmingly  confessed to ‘getting lost in the Forest of Arden.’ Without the M40 doing a season or two at Stratford used to put a strain on marriages. Her beautiful voice and mental appreciation of Shakespeare’s language purred with the power of a tigress:

If you have ever felt passion, love, or anger, or greed, or jealousy, there is a reference in Shakespeare that will make it live for you.

It used to be called the Elisabeth Scott Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. In 1961 the young Turks of British theatre Peter Hall  and Peter Brook  arrived to give it new life with ensemble rehearsals and a naturalistic discovery of the meaning of the text for present time and not the past.

Brook’s white box 1970 production of Midsummer Night’s Dream with Chinese circus acrobats has never been forgotten.  He will not be lamenting the destruction of the proscenium arch auditorium that confronted him half a century ago:

From the start we all recognised we were working in the ugliest, most unfriendly and in many ways the most difficult theatre one could imagine. The acoustics were lousy. It was quite incredible. Here was this theatre based on the spoken word of the greatest writer. You had to yell. You had to turn your head. You had to really work the relation between the seats and the audience. The sightlines and everything! It was bad.

But a later director, Terry Hands,  recalled the thrill of manipulating and harnessing the blast of one thousand three hundred theatre-goers, an exhilarating experience; like surfing huge waves off Bondi Beach:

The rollers are phenomenal. You can break your neck if you get it wrong.

Much better than trying to get a reaction from a puddle.

Three evocative half hour programmes on BBC Radio 4, crafted with elegance by producer Beaty Rubens, gave us the ghosts in the walls and much more.

At any one time the RSC company is one hundred actors journeying into an intense exploration and understanding of Shakespeare’s language in a tradition of open rehearsals. We heard novices and veterans convening somewhere in Clapham, South London to fathom a new way of playing Macbeth that will open the new space  on 16th April 2011.

State subsidies mean the actors have the voice coaching of Cicely Berry,  now 40 years with the company, and the academic direction of John Barton  along with a craft industry of armourers, costume and set designers, musicians and composers.

Dame Judi recalled a previous and celebrated production of the Scottish Play in the Other Place, no more than a glorified shed. She was Lady Macbeth to Ian McKellen’s Macbeth,  but the witches had to came on stage through the toilets and one night discovered and terrified two malingering schoolboys.

The programmes were not an excuse for the great Thespians of the past to bemoan the failure of the younger generation to emulate the revolutionary and creative spirit of the 1960s and 1970s. Apparently actors nowadays are bolder, braver and better trained. As Peter Brook said:

The hope is not that we have mastered Shakespeare, but that we have to remind ourselves every time, this is not Shakespeare ‘memorial’ which is where the death bells sounded, but this is Shakespeare as a real living example that there is something more.

Audio of the review text

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