RSC: Rancour, Subterfuge, Calamity ; A Tragicomedy for Our Times, by Thomas Sutcliffe

By Sutcliffe, Thomas | The Independent (London, England), November 2, 2001 | Go to article overview
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RSC: Rancour, Subterfuge, Calamity ; A Tragicomedy for Our Times, by Thomas Sutcliffe


Sutcliffe, Thomas, The Independent (London, England)


In February of this year Adrian Noble, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, was in ebullient mood. His production of The Secret Garden was about to open in the West End and the omens for its success were good - it had taken more than pounds 1m in advance box office before its Stratford opening, the largest ever advance for an RSC production. What's more, Noble had plans for the company from which it had come - an aggressive project to reshape its Stratford home, to release it from what he saw as the "tyranny" of its London base in the Barbican and to market the RSC brand worldwide. Asked by a journalist to define the nature of the company that was about to undergo this startling makeover, he had no difficulty in coming up with an inspiring mission statement: "It's a company," he said, "that draws its inspiration from the Renaissance and provides us with epic, mythic stories."

Well, nobody could deny that the past few months have proved him right - though, as in quite a few mythic stories, there is a malign twist to the vindication. The Royal Shakespeare Company has become the drama - and it is seen by many to offer a plot dense with betrayal, court politics and hubris.

If you want "Renaissance inspiration", then just listen to the director who described Noble's immediate circle at the RSC as creating a "Vatican- like atmosphere - the Pope and his nuncios". And if you want "epic", then just look through the cuttings: there have been dramatic recantations - Terry Hands, Noble's predecessor and mentor at the RSC resigned, declaring that the plans were "artistically and financially" unviable - and there has even been a Royal summons - at the beginning of September, Noble and the RSC's managing director Chris Foy were invited to discuss matters with the Prince of Wales at Highgrove, such was the volume of anguished mail the Prince had been receiving. The Secret Garden, incidentally, closed early after a three-month run.

That last fact isn't simply a malicious addition to the fusillade of criticisms that Noble has had to withstand in the past few weeks. It's a straw in an icy wind - because much of what this story is about comes down to the commercial value of the three letters that make up the company name. In that same interview in February, there was no sign of aesthetic squeamishness about the way Noble embraced the language of the Harvard Business School to describe the property he proposed to take to market. "We are a global brand," he said. "We create product that is of interest to a lot of people, and we are seeking a way by which we can find outlets for that work." To that end, Noble had hired Andrew "The Jackal" Wylie, a New York literary agent, to extract the maximum available profit from the company acronym - most obviously as a kind of Shakespearean kite- mark, a guarantee of quality from the home town of Bardolatry. From now on, it seemed, it wasn't just going to be "I Love Willy" T-shirts and Macbeth erasers in the Stratford gift-shop, but a professional exercise in merchandising Shakespearean purity.

And if this sent shivers of unease through those with delicate sensibilities, there was worse to come. Noble announced a plan to rebuild the Stratford memorial theatre (a building with few passionate friends, it has to be said), and create a "Shakespeare village" on the banks of the river, at which devoted pilgrims would arrive by boat, having parked their cars nearby. Noble was at pains to explain that this didn't mean hog roasts served up by doubleted valets - but his alternative vision of tourists taking part in a fight workshop before attending an evening performance of Hamlet didn't reassure everyone.

While Shakespeare World was rising beside the Avon, it was also announced that the long-established London branch of the RSC would be closed down in favour of ad-hoc homes in the West End - the argument being that West End managements would be only too glad to compete for the box-office kudos of an RSC production.

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