Repertory has increasingly become a redundant theatrical term: even the National and RSC, both of them built on the European notion of maintaining permanent acting ensembles who together create a body of work across several seasons or indeed a lifetime, have largely abandoned it. Meanwhile, the regional network of repertory theatres - with the same company playing one show while rehearsing the next - has also been all but dismantled, with productions cast instead on a show-by-show basis.
Where repertory survives (and indeed thrives) nowadays is only on a project-led basis. The current Olivier Award-winning RSC West End season of five neglected 'Jacobethan' plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries - which transferred from Stratford to the West End's Gielgud Theatre (where they are playing through 22 March) - is one example. Others can be found at the National, where Trevor Nunn has followed the triple bill of Tom Stoppard's Russian plays, The Coast of Utopia (premiered last summer), with the more improbable pairing of Cole Porter's effervescent Anything Goes with Shakespeare's pastoral comedy Love's Labour's Lost. These latter two, Nunn's final productions as artistic director of the National, are performed by a cross-cast acting company (albeit significantly bolstered for the Shakespeare, with actors like Joseph Fiennes and Olivia Williams new to the ensemble).
Many directors enjoy the notion of pairing two plays together to be performed by the same company and striking resonances between them. Sam Mendes has just won multiple Oliviers for doing just that with Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night - plays of unrequited and (mostly) requited love, respectively - as his final productions at the Donmar Warehouse (and latterly at New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music).
Max Stafford-Clark has done a lot of this, regularly commissioning new plays to go alongside old ones, such as when he combined George Farquhar's classic The Recruiting Officer with Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good about a group of convicts performing the first play. Now he and his Out of Joint company have intriguingly married Oliver Goldsmith's 1773 She Stoops to Conquer with April de Angelis' modern spin-off, A Laughing Matter, which goes behind-the-scenes of the Goldsmith play's premiere (both currently in rep at the National's Lyttelton before continuing on tour). And, this week, Manchester's Royal Exchange presents Chekhov's The Seagull together with the world premiere of Canadian writer Brad Fraser's Cold Meat Party, both charting the consequences of people failing to connect and what happens when fame and success is lost, found or becomes a burden.
A real vindication
There is a definite appetite amongst actors, as well as audiences, for this kind of work. Antony Sher - whose career was nurtured and flew in the repertory tradition of the RSC of old - is starring in two of the Jacobethan plays. "This season has been a real vindication, I think, of that system," he says. "Certainly, people have come to see us because of the pleasure of seeing the same actors in different things. I'm only in two of them, so it's not quite as much a mountain for me, but some of the actors are in three or four plays. It's really quite something - and terrific for audience members who manage to see all five."
In other words, there's a shared experience and adventure on both sides of the footlights. What's more Sher, for one, relishes being freed from the tyranny of repetition. "The privilege of being in the West End at the moment and not playing the same part eight times a week as normally you would do is just delightful beyond belief! I find the West End very difficult from that point of view - I find the endless repetition required really, really hard, trying to keep inventing and to keep a performance fresh. That problem is completely removed here, and instead there is a mild terror at all times, because you are never quite sure when you last did this particular show. But terror is very healthy for a good performance!"
In fact, Sher is accustomed to that terror. "There was a crazy season where I played Shylock (in The Merchant of Venice), Malvolio (Twelfth Night) and Mendici in The Revengers' Tragedy - all in one season - and I was writing a book as well at the same time. Even as a workaholic, I felt stretched. Being in four worlds at once, I was at times in danger of speaking my own lines from the novel rather than those of the playwright."
On a practical level, overlapping repertory demands that, if there is a substantial break between performances of a particular show, the company convenes for a line-read beforehand, and, adds Sher, "I personally go through my own lines at least once, if not twice, on top of that." But beyond the lines, what about retrieving the performance energy when a play hasn't been done for a while? "If it's a good production - and certainly the two that I'm involved in feel like they're very good productions - then the moment the whole machinery goes into action all of that comes back, and the benefit of not being punch drunk with the show, but instead really thinking freshly through it, is just completely invaluable. I would prefer to work in this system always."
Sadly, repertory opportunities are becoming fewer and fewer. Perhaps Sher should stick with the RSC. No, not the Royal Shakespeare Company - though, under new artistic director Michael Boyd, they seem to be returning to their roots with a 60-strong ensemble and a bold Festival season at Stratford (See News, 6 Mar 2003) - but rather comedy troupe, the Reduced Shakespeare Company, who cheekily share its acronym. Residing at the Criterion Theatre, these strolling players have usurped their seniors to become the West End's longest-ever running repertory company, with a seemingly improbable but in fact smash hit rotating trilogy of irreverent, fast-paced sketch shows that provide lightning tours of the complete works of Shakespeare, the history of America and the Bible, all of them in comically abridged form.
Kyle Dadd, a Canadian actor based in London, has been with the company for five years and counting. "I'm the longest consecutive serving member apart from the writers," he boasts. After first joining in 1997, Dadd hasn't looked back: "They haven't fired me yet, so I'm assuming I must be doing something right!"
In addition to knowing all three shows inside and out, Dadd must know all of his multiple roles in each of them - so he's got eight or nine parts in his head. For the The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, he's now "retired" his Hamlet, while in the other two "I tend to do the old girl roles - I like to be in touch with my inner woman! It's a lot of fun for me and I enjoy doing them."
Teamwork at Mear station
As for the art of juggling them all, Dadd explains: "It can be a little bit strange, but it's like being in space - you meet at Mear station, and download them in your brain. The more you learn, the more capacity you have to keep them in your head. After doing them for such a long time, I know the shows so intrinsically, so that even if something goes wrong, I can pick it up again. That's what teamwork is all about, too - if things go wrong, we have the safeguard that we can rely on each other."
HOW DO THEATREGOERS VIEW THE STATE OF THE COMPANY SYSTEM?
One of our previous Big Debate surveys looked at this very issue. Of those who took part, 89% said they were indeed worried about the demise of the company. The benefits for the audience - as opposed to merely the performers - were manifold, according to respondents. They include: the nurturing of young talent (89%), ensemble versus star-driven productions (84%) and an infectious rapport in performance (77%). To view the full results from this survey, click here and, to continue the debate, feel free to post your own thoughts and comments in the Whatsonstage.com Discussion Forum.