May 5, 2007, by Peter Kirwan

The RSC Open Day

It’s been almost a week since the RSC Open Day 2007, which among other things heralded the official close of the Complete Works Festival. I’ve had a hectic week at work and haven’t had a chance to even think about posting blogs for a while, but the one advantage of having the extra time is that I’ve been able to think a bit about the talks I went to, and try and work on what was REALLY going on at the Open Day.

The Open Day itself was good fun- aside from the horrendous queuing for events, there was a lot of entertaining stuff going on, in particular the hysterical football match between the houses of Lancaster and York, which gave the histories company a good excuse to roll about on the floor, kick balls into the lake and generally let their hair down. I caught a small amount of the kids events happening as well, which they seemed to be enjoying!

In general, though, I found the event a bit uninspiring. Possibly I’d put a bit too much hope into this ‘official close of the CWF’ title, because in fact the day wasn’t about that at all. There were two things on everyone’s mind- the return of Tim Supple’s ‘Dream’, which everyone was raving about, and the transformation of the theatres, which was causing a lot of quite violent debate during the day.

One man in particular will always remain in my mind, who launched a huge tirade at Chip, the incredibly hard-working events chap, about the Courtyard Theatre, citing its “Scrapyard Chic” and complaining that Shakespeare “wasn’t written for these stupid spaces….. it’s like a circus….. you can even see the scenery being changed”. Resisting the urge to take the chap through some of the basics of Elizabethan theatre practices, I was nonetheless pleased to see some of the other audience speaking against this ignoramus and defending the Courtyard.

The polarisation of the debate has left me feeling pretty cold about the whole transformation project. I know where I stand- I love the Courtyard, I love thrust theatre and I think it’s a fantastic thing. Yes, I AM going to miss the opportunity to see proscenium arch theatre, but I personally don’t like the atmosphere of the RST as it stands. I find it old-fashioned, highly conservative and weighed down under its own illustrious tradition, the perfect theatre for the Stratford set who sit guffawing loudly at the obscure jokes in order that everyone can hear how well-educated they are, and rabbit on about “When I saw Olivier here…” etc etc. I know by saying all of this that I’m talking in terms of stereotypes, but more and more I get disillusioned about the possibility for change. Tradition is a fine thing, but I feel the RSC is held back by historical baggage.

If we could just have a proscenium arch theatre, a thrust stage and a studio space in Stratford, all vibrant, new spaces thriving in the 21st century I’d probably be a lot more sympathetic to those audiences against the change, but to me the arguments against the transformation are more against modern ways of performing. Those saying they want the RST to remain as it is are, consciously or subconsciously, saying that they want the RSC to continue performing as it did in the 60s- these are the people who feel that ‘proper’ Shakespeare is reserved for the likes of Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft and John Gielgud.

To tone down the rant- I feel that the transformation of the RST will allow the RSC to develop far more freely as an artistic company without worrying about pandering to outdated models of performance. The past needs to be acknowledged, but it also needs to be escaped from.

The reason I said I feel more coldly about the whole debate, despite my own strong views, are that the polarisation of the arguments have caused the pro-transformation lobby to lose much credibility as well, which brings me back to the Open Day. All day, Michael Boyd looked harrassed. He seemed to be feeling under attack about the changes in the company, and by the time we got to the RST for the hour-long discussion about the theatre, he seemed very tired. He then sat through the four earlier artistic directors reminiscing about their time at the RSC and their love for the theatre as was. Eventually, the talk came round to Michael, and he seemed to snap. Acknowledging that, “even though it’s the responsibility of the current artistic director to listen and learn from his predecessors…”, he gave a short and very sharp outline of what was happening. “We have not compromised. We have gone for a thrust stage, where the audience are aware of the rest of the audience. I’m sorry for those of you who like sitting in the dark- I recommend the cinema”. He received a round of applause from about half of the audience for this, while the rest sat in silence.

Michael Boyd

I didn’t want the RSC Open Day to be like this. The previous day had seen a members’ discussion at the Courtyard on the transformation project, and that (to me) seemed to be the place for these discussions. The RSC was finishing one of the most successful years in its history, a year which has seen some phenomenal theatre, a fantastic sense of diversity and multiculturalism, and a real sense of moving on, and yet it culminated in this day of mixed views, high tempers and bickering. Granted, some of the nostalgia was lovely, in particular a very funny discussion between some of the RSC’s most respected acting alumni talking about their experiences. I suppose I just felt that, after taking great leaps forward this year, it suddenly felt like everyone had been brought up short.

There were other fab events though. Paul Allen, CAPITAL’s Fellow of Creativity, led a fascinating panel discussion on the Festival, which highlighted some of the diverse views of those who had attended productions (Gavin Friday- generally not loved; Cymbeline- mixed views; Othello- surprisingly liked in retrospect). Sir Christopher Bland, another of the three that I’m aware of who saw everything, revealed that he’d raised thousands of pounds for charity by doing it sponsored, so all credit to him (though it must be a bit easier to do when you’re the chairman of the RSC and have your tickets booked for you….. not that I’m bitter…..). Michael Wood led a fascinating talk on international interpretations of Shakespeare, in which actor John Kani shone with wonderful anecdotes, and there was also a very interesting talk at the start of the day as the Swan tech crew set up for the ‘Dream’.

If the RSC is going to get the best effect out of its open days, I think it needs to find a better way of siphoning off the serious debates. What should have been a celebratory day was marred by the arguments, and I think the achievements of the year were overshadowed by the uncertain future. I hope now that the RST is closed and the new programme is fully underway, though, that the RSC can get on with its most important responsibility- being an artistically vibrant theatre company.

Posted in Events