Lack of 2003 Transfers Causes Discontent at RSCDate: 7 October 2003
Unless a commercial deal is struck imminently, this year's highly acclaimed Stratford-upon-Avon season of the Royal Shakespeare Company - which features leading actors such as Henry Goodman, David Bradley, Daniel Evans, Emma Fielding, Jasper Britton and Alexandra Gilbreath - looks like it will bypass London entirely. If that happens, it will mark the first time in the RSC's history that it has failed to move at least part of its season to the capital, a turn of events that's been greeted with consternation by many of its acting company.
At a press conference in London a week ago today (See News, 30 Sep 2003), RSC artistic director Michael Boyd launched his inaugural season, including a new production of All's Well That Ends Well starring Dame Judi Dench that will transfer immediately to the West End's Gielgud Theatre after its Stratford-upon-Avon run, under the commercial auspices of producers Bill Kenwright and Thelma Holt.
Boyd also said that finding a new London home was "absolutely crucial" to the future of the company and promised that an announcement would follow at the start of 2004 about a 'temporary' venue intended to see it through the next four to five years. The aim is to have this in place by October 2004, in time to take transfers of the four Shakespeare Tragedies and other productions in next spring's line-up.
A 'Lost' Season
But in the midst of this planning for the future, it seems that planning for the present season - programmed by outgoing artistic director Adrian Noble who stepped down at the end of March just as it was getting started - has suffered. As it stands, there are no agreements to give a London showing to any of the productions from the current Festival season (concluding in Stratford on 8 November, with some productions continuing at Newcastle-upon-Tyne until 6 December). If no transfers follow, it will be the first Stratford season unseen in London since the company's formation in 1960.
The deadline for the RSC management to extend the contracts of the actors beyond these commitments expired yesterday, and an aggrieved company member who contacted Whatsonstage.com has said that the actors' have given the company a week's grace on this deadline. An RSC spokesperson confirms, "We have no arrangements to transfer, though we are still talking to a couple of people and the deadline is the end of this week. But there have never been any absolutely firm transfer plans. As Michael Boyd announced last week, we will not have a regular London venue until autumn of next year, which obviously will be far too late for any of this year's productions."
The current Stratford company, inevitably, feel left out. As the Whatsonstage.com source comments: "How nice for Michael that his inaugural season will have a London home, but who exactly is the artistic director for our season then? ... Saving it all up for next year isn't going to help anyone in the company at the moment, most of whom face unemployment in five weeks' time."
The RSC spokesperson replies: "We understand that the acting company aren't happy as they still see London as the pinnacle. However, when they were contracted, there was never any promise of their being seen in the capital. And sadly, at this point in time, we do not have the financial power to go it alone."
Since previous artistic director Adrian Noble took the RSC out of its then permanent home at the Barbican Centre in May 2002 (a withdrawal that began in 1997 with the halving of the year-round residency there), the company have struggled to find a suitable London showcase, with a season at Camden's Roundhouse Theatre in a purpose-built wooden drum in the summer of 2002 that cost, and lost, it a great deal of money.
When the company announced that its deficit had grown by £1 million to take it to £2.5 million in the red as of its annual report last December (See News, 4 Dec 2002), RSC Chairman Lord Alexander said that, though this scheme had provided for "artistic flexibility", it was nevertheless "important for our audiences in London to know where the RSC can regularly be found. We are undoubtedly wiser from our experience of the last 12 months and there is no question of our behaving anything other than cautiously and prudently in regard to our future in the capital."
Commercial producers, whom the RSC have counted on to plug the gap, are also emerging wiser from their experiences of the last 12 months, and apparently becoming more cautious and prudent themselves as a result. The Kenwright/Holt produced season of six 'Jacobethan' plays, with the company led by Antony Sher, mounted up a reported loss of over £1 million during its season at the Gielgud Theatre last Christmas, and the Duncan Weldon/Paul Elliott sponsored Old Vic presentation of Coriolanus and The Merry Wives of Windsor earlier this summer shuttered three weeks earlier than scheduled.
Other productions, like the Ralph Fiennes Brand and even the forthcoming All's Well That Ends Well with Dench, are RSC in name only: their commercial West End lives arranged long before they open in Stratford for straight runs in the Swan, with ad hoc companies set up specially to perform them.
Commitment vs Complacency
Despite the risks, according to the Whatsonstage.com source, several West End producers have been "falling over themselves" to take some of this season's shows - in particular Gregory Doran's history-making pairing of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew and John Fletcher's lesser-known sequel The Tamer Tamed (pictured), both of which have played to full houses in Stratford - but negotiations appear to have broken down on the RSC's side.
The company insider concludes: "Somebody in the management has let the ball drop on our season because all energies are focussed on the future, rather than present successes. The only way it makes any kind of sense is to question the commitment of the management of the RSC.... Complacency seems to be what went wrong."
Meanwhile, other transfers are already off the cards. The Newcastle-upon-Tyne autumn residency, for instance, which typically would include the entire Shakespearean repertoire of the year's season, this year will be without The Taming of the Shrew (though its companion piece will be seen there without it). According to the RSC company member, Shrew "cannot be performed (in Newcastle) because the set has to be sent ahead to Washington DC by sea" to fulfil the company's US obligations.
A London critic commented to Whatsonstage.com: "It's ridiculous - the RSC is funded by British taxpayers, not American ones, but the US sponsored deal seems to have priority."