The Royal Shakespeare Company today announced details of its first annual New Work Festival, which concludes Michael Boyd’s inaugural season as artistic director this autumn (See News, 30 Sep 2003).

The two-week event, running from 29 September to 17 October 2004, will feature four world premieres – the first staged by the RSC since 2001 - in addition to various performed readings, works in progress, community and educational projects. These will be staged across all of the Stratford performance spaces - including The Other Place studio space, which has been closed since 2001 – before transferring to Newcastle in November and, in spring 2005, on to London and a still-to-be announced, dedicated venue.

Highlights of the festival will include theatrical debuts – both writing and performing - by Generation X author Douglas Coupland and political commentator Yasmin Alibhai-Brown; and new works by Zinnie Harris (whose previous plays include Further Than the Furthest Thing), Joanna Laurens (Five Gold Rings), Ron Hutchinson (Rat in the Skull), Richard Nelson (The General from America) and Lee Hall (Cooking with Elvis), amongst them three post-9/11 themed pieces and a solo show based on the diaries of the late theatre critic Kenneth Tynan.

The new works will be performed by actors from the existing Stratford ensembles for the Tragedies and Spanish Golden Age season. Amongst those taking part are: Corin Redgrave, Ruth Gemmell, Greg Hicks, Sian Brooke, Toby Stephens and Clive Wood.

At a press briefing held today in London, Dominic Cooke, RSC associate director and curator of the New Work Festival, explained that the intention of the event was to return the company to the founding principles outlined by Peter Hall in 1960: namely, to maintain the ‘centrality’ of new work as part of a continuing exploration of Shakespeare’s inheritance.

Cooke recalled that, though the emphasis has waned in the new century, over the previous decades, “many of the RSC’s most famous productions have been new works”, including Peter Brook’s renowned Theatre of Cruelty, CP Taylor’s Good and adaptations such as Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Nicholas Nickleby and, still running in the West End nearly 19 years on, Les Miserables.

Moving forward, Cooke said, the aim is to return new works – and specifically those addressing epic themes in a heightened way for big spaces (a la Shakespeare himself) - to the heart of the RSC’s repertoire. “We hope to see an infiltration of new work into the main season from next year,” he said at today’s event. Further ahead, “We would love to get a new play into the (1,400-seat) Royal Shakespeare Theatre. That would be a fantastic achievement.”

In a separate statement, Boyd commented: "Our Shakespeare productions will become shallow unless they relate to contemporary work which deals directly with the world we live in. This first New Work Festival is a chance to re-open a dialogue with contemporary writers and challenge the way that new work is produced in this country. It allows us to experiment and allow our audiences to join us as we test out newly hatched ideas - something we know they're hungry for. It's a two week jamboree with a spirit that I hope will infect our work year round."

The four world premieres, presented as full-scale production as part of the 2004 New Work festival, will be: Midwinter, a lyrical, post-apocalyptic play by Zinnie Harris; Joanna LaurensPoor Beck, a re-working of the story of Myrrah from Ovid’s Metamorphosis; Head/Case, the final play in Ron Hutchinson’s trilogy of plays examining the Northern Irish psyche; and Tynan, the one-man show performed by Corin Redgrave and written by Richard Nelson (with Colin Chambers), based on Kenneth Tynan’s own irreverent diaries.

The works-in-progress will include: a devised piece, led Michael Boyd and inspired by the life of Pontius Pilate, featuring Toby Stephens as Jesus, Greg Hicks as Judas and Clive Wood as Pilate; a ‘provocation’ entitled Visible care of homeless persons’ theatre company Cardboard Citizens; and Shock in Awe Lee Hall’s new play about the untold story of Brits in Iraq. There will also be a readings of Shakespeare’s narrative poem Venus and Adonis, directed by Gregory Doran, and the first two plays in Hutchinson’s trilogy, Rat in the Skull and The Irish Play.

In the first of a planned series of non-theatrical figures writing for and treading the RSC stage, Douglas Coupland and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown will perform two rehearsed monologues detailing their own individual responses to contemporary events. Coupland’s is entitled September 10 2001: Looking back at the ‘90s, Alibhai-Brown’s is Nowhere to belong: Tales of an extravagant stranger.

- by Terri Paddock