A Dramatic Royal Flush

By Pressley, Nelson | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 7, 1998 | Go to article overview

A Dramatic Royal Flush


Pressley, Nelson, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The Royal Shakespeare Company is coming to Washington this week with a flourish that few theaters in the world can match. Over the next five weeks, the company will show off 50 actors in a daring repertory of five plays.

A radical interpretation of "Hamlet" and a Kabuki-informed staging of "Cymbeline" will take turns in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, with "Hamlet" running Tuesday through June 21 and "Cymbeline" following.

Shakespeare's "Henry VIII," starring Tony Award winner Jane Lapotaire as Queen Katherine and Paul Jesson as the king, will anchor the three plays scheduled for the Kennedy Center's smaller Terrace Theater.

"Henry VIII" opens Tuesday for a two-week run, with Samuel Beckett's one-man "Krapp's Last Tape" usurping the stage June 17 and 19. The medieval morality play "Everyman," widely studied but seldom staged, takes the Terrace the last week of June. Adrian Noble, the company's artistic director since 1990, hopes this tour will be a rolling approximation of the company style that usually is on display in the RSC's home base of Stratford, England. That the company no longer has a year-round base in London is, by now, last year's news.

"People didn't think we'd be able to do it," Mr. Noble says of the company's flight for half of each year from the Barbican Center in London. "People got very beady about it. They don't like change. And also there's this terrible snobbism that if it doesn't happen in London, it's not worth having."

The semiretreat from the Barbican - an isolated, concrete high-rise complex that is widely criticized for its bunkerlike atmosphere - is part of what Mr. Noble calls a "refocusing" effort for the troupe. For starters, actors' contracts have been shortened to 20 months, down from grueling 28-month stints - put in, for example, by performers involved with "The Winter's Tale," which came to the Kennedy Center along with "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in 1996.

It's a recognition that not even the company - whose former stars include Ben Kingsley, Patrick Stewart, Glenda Jackson, Paul Scofield and Judi Dench - can afford to pay performers a fraction of what they can earn in films and television. Gone are the days when a top actress, such as Peggy Ashcroft, would spend two years in a single play on the West End, much less stick to a single company for several seasons.

"Actors say, `I'll do 12 weeks,' " Mr. Noble says.

Mr. Noble also is trying to steer the company ever outward, emphasizing more touring and residencies in the United Kingdom and abroad. The imperative for the heavily subsidized RSC to tour in Britain is easily explained.

"People pay their taxes," Mr. Noble says. "It seems to me they have the right to see the work of the national classical company."

But international tours? Especially as big as the five-show repertory that just pulled up stakes at the Brooklyn Academy of Music before trekking south to the Kennedy Center?

The artistic director's answer has to do with the international flavor of Shakespeare's work. Mr. Noble points out that most great dramatists write conspicuously of their own countries - Arthur Miller of a very recognizable America, Moliere of the French court. Shakespeare, on the other hand, set his plays all over the map.

"His subject matter was humanity," Mr. Noble says. "His theater was the Globe. His stage was the known world."

Besides capitalizing on the innate portability of Shakespeare, Mr. Noble also wants to create a situation "where people could witness the RSC in very similar, if not identical, circumstances to the ones we have in Stratford - i.e. not just one play, but a repertoire."

More than 50 of the company's current 70 actors will be in town for this residency, the second and final stop on this U.S. trip. It's the biggest tour the RSC has done in its 37 years, but Mr. Noble has even grander schemes up his sleeve: He wants to take a full 10-play season on the road some day.

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