When Peter Hall was appointed Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1960, one of his first efforts to accomplish his goal of “expressing Shakespeare’s intentions in terms that modern audiences could understand”, was to change the name and identity of the organisation:
The title Royal Shakespeare Company helps us…it’s got everything in it except God! And it is a good commercial title, but it also has an enormous danger. It makes us sound antique, square, institutional, conservative, traditional...We are none of these things. We want to run a popular theatre. We want to get people who have never been to the theatre—and particularly the young—to see our plays.
Hall claimed the fundamental mission of the newly christened RSC was to ‘conserve, advance and disseminate the dramatic heritage of Shakespeare,’ and in effect to ‘speak authoritatively through, for and on behalf of Shakespeare’.
In the past 50 years, the RSC has achieved this goal with its extensive production programmes in Stratford-upon-Avon, London, and Newcastle, and by the various outreach projects and tours it conducts around globe. With the opening of the new theatre compex in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Company seems to be celebrating its rich heritage, while simultaneously signaling their intent for decades to come. In honour of this milestone, a selection of key company members have offered their memories on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s illustrious past:
Cicely Berry, OBE, Hon.D.Litt (Voice Director)
When did you join the RSC?
I joined the Company in 1969. This was my first experience working exclusively with and for a large theatre company, and the directors were each so open to me, and my work. They each had such different styles, and that’s important. Trevor [Nunn] had such a quiet intensity, Terry [Hands] more of a large, epic style, and for John [Barton] it was all about forms of speech and expression, metre and rhythm. Experiencing these differences made me realize that actors have to find their own truths through each director’s style, and communicate with the audience.
What have been the greatest challenges in your work with the Company?
The way we speak has changed due to television and film. In the past, the focus was on finding the music of the language, the poetry. The emphasis was on beautiful, declaimed speech. Today, the emphasis is on the ‘now’. Speaking the ‘now’, politics. Actors have a difficult time speaking text. It’s about striking a delicate balance between the ‘then’ and the ‘now’. Shakespeare is always at the heart of now.
Has the RSC been successful in fulfilling its mission as Peter Hall stated it in 1961?
Yes. We are fulfilling Hall’s mission because we are changing and evolving with the times. Always bringing the work to the ‘now’.
What are your fondest RSC memories?
Peter Brook’s Dream in 1970 - so simple, yet, so deep. Buzz Goodbody’s Hamlet (1975); Richard II in 1974 with Pasco and Richardson; The Histories, 1977; and directing King Lear at The Other Place in 1988.
Sheila Allen (Actor)
When did you join the Company?
I joined the Company in London, at the Aldwych in 1964. I worked with the RSC until 1979, with gaps to do TV series. My first role was playing the leading woman in a production of Playing with Fire by August Strindberg.
What are your fondest memories?
Playing Lady Percy in Henry IV, Parts I and II, in 1966. Also, playing Constance in King John, and Goneril in Buzz Goodbody's King Lear in 1974. I loved her direction and rehearsal work. That was my second Goneril for the RSC. My husband David's exquisite productions of Loves Labours Lost and Enemies by Gorky. Working with great actors, and with directors who were intelligent, had standards and respected the actor's ability. Being in the presence and friends of John Barton, Cicely Berry, Trevor Nunn, Peter Hall and Buzz Goodbody. And, knowing I was in a theatre group of great promise and eminence.
Guy Woolfenden, OBE (Music Director, Composer)
What was your first production at the RSC?
I joined the newly named Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961 as Deputy Music Director under Brian Priestman, and my first production as composer was in 1962. The play was Measure for Measure starring Tom Fleming as Vincentio, Marius Goring as Angelo and Judi Dench as Isabella. The director, John Blatchley, was keen to use sound effects, but did not require any instrumental music, just the unaccompanied song 'Take, oh take, those lips away'. Still, it was a start. I went on to compose more than 150 scores for the RSC including music for every acknowledged Shakespeare play, including The Two Noble Kinsmen, (written with John Fletcher) in the production that opened the Swan Theatre in 1986.
What is your fondest RSC memory?
One of my fondest memories is of composing music for Trevor Nunn's musical version of The Comedy of Errors, which opened in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1976. We had a 13-piece band, a top choreographer (Gillian Lynne), arrangers and copyists burning the midnight oil, a wonderful set by John Napier and Desmond Hayes, and a superb cast which included Francesca Annis, Judi Dench, Robin Ellis, Nickolas Grace, Mike Gwilym, Roger Rees and Michael Williams. The show went on to win the 1976 Performing Right Society Ivor Novello Award and the 1977 Society of West End Theatre Award for the Best British Musical.
What are some of the highlights of your time with the Company?
I remember so many highlights, which include Peter Hall's ground-breaking Wars of the Roses in 1963, Peter's 1965 production of Hamlet, starring David Warner and Glenda Jackson, which caught the public imagination so that there were huge ticket queues winding round the town from dawn every day; Terry Hands' 1968 production of Merry Wives of Windsor, which we later toured to Japan, Terry's wonderful 1975 production of Henry V, starring Alan Howard, which later toured to Russia; Trevor Nunn's 1969 production of The Winter's Tale, starring Barrie Ingham, Judi Dench and Richard Pasco, which toured to Japan and Australia, Trevor's productions of Henry IV Parts I and II starring Joss Ackland, Gerard Murphy, Patrick Stewart, Timothy Dalton, Hugh Quarshie and Harriet Walter, which opened the Barbican Theatre in 1982, and Adrian Noble's 1992 production of Hamlet starring Ken Branagh, David Bradley, Jane Lapotaire and Joanne Pearce.
I reworked my scores for Terry's Henry V and Trevor's Henry IV for the Barbican into concert pieces (Deo Gracias and Gallimaufry) and now, I am happy to say, are played by symphonic wind orchestras all over the world.
What has been the greatest challenge in creating music for the Company?
All the RSC directors I worked with seemed to agree that whenever possible music in the theatre should be played live. Of course, some production styles cry out for electronic effects and indeed, quite early on for Peter Hall's 1967 production of Macbeth, I engaged members of Unit Delta Plus (formed by Peter Zinovieff with Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson, previously of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop where they had composed the Dr Who theme!) to help us out. Other productions, e.g., Trevor Nunn's 1974 Macbeth, called out for choral music with organ accompaniment, but the theatre musicians were never laid off as they played in repertory on a fixed salary.
Any further thoughts/comments on 50 Years of the RSC
I wish all my friends and colleagues past and present in the RSC "bon voyage" towards the future, and I am proud to have spent so much of my life with the works of the world's greatest playwright. I have every confidence that Michael Boyd will steer the good ship "Shakespeare", and the RSC, safely onwards.
The Reverend Martin Gorick (Chaplain)
When did you join the RSC?
I arrived as Vicar here in 2001, but took over as Chaplain for the RSC in 2002.
Were you familiar with the Company's work before your Chaplaincy?
I'd been twice to the RST as a teenager in the 1970s/1980s from Nottingham, where I grew up. My mother had queued for a standing ticket when she was 18 and wanted to go back. I never guessed I'd end up living and working just down the road.
What was the first production you saw?
It was either Merry Wives of Windsor set in a 1960's hairdressing salon (first time I realised Shakespeare could be fun!) or Merchant of Venice with Prunella Scales. I remember being very pleased to see her.
What benefit does the RSC bring to the town of Stratford-upon-Avon?
The RSC lifts Stratford from being just a small, Midlands town, albeit a lovely one, to a place full of creativity and life with a real international life. Visitors came well before the RSC of course, but it is now an essential part of the towns 'offer' and without it I'm sure we would not sustain half the shops and restaurants that we all enjoy. It also brings a good deal of employment, and perhaps uniquely now sustains a creative community of
carpenters, engineers, costume makers, etc. which is an amazing resource and adds greatly to the particular 'feel' of the town.
What are some of the highlights of your time with the Company?
RSC carol services, candlelit in Holy Trinity, I always love those. This year processing into the new theatre, enjoying a superb company Mystery Play and then giving the final blessing there, amongst so many friends. That felt a great privilege for me.
Alycia Smith-Howard, Ph.D is author of Studio Shakespeare: The Royal Shakespeare Company at The Other Place, available from: www.ashgate.com
"Tomato, To-mah-to: The Adventures of an American Girl in England" - http://i-say-tomato.blogspot.com
More from entertainment