The Royal Shakespeare Company has announced details for an ambitious - intriguingly Shakespeare-free - winter season which will include epic new adaptations of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and, inviting associations with Trevor Nunn’s landmark 1980 staging of Nicholas Nickleby, Charles DickensGreat Expectations, as well as a tribute revival of the late Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible and, as previously tipped (See The Goss, 7 Mar 2005), Middleton’s Women Beware Women starring Penelope Wilton.

Great Expectations (pictured), presented in associated with touring company Cheek by Jowl, will kick off the season in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, running from 6 December 2005 (previews from 25 November 2005) to 4 February 2006. Adapted by Cheek by Jowl co-founders Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, Donnellan will also direct and Ormerod will design the production.

Dickens’ 1860 masterpiece takes its hero Pip on a journey from the marshes of Medway to London society and transforms him from a young blacksmith into a young gentleman of ‘great expectations’. Buried guilt and fear of the truth darken the laughter in this much loved tale which will be Donnellan and Ormerod’s first adaptation of a 19th-century novel since their Olivier award-winning Vanity Fair in 1985.

Great Expectations will be followed in the RST by The Crucible from 28 February to 18 March 2005 (previews from 16 February). Directed by RSC associate director Dominic Cooke, this tribute revival will be the company’s first ever major, main-stage production of a play by Miller, who died in February at the age of 89 (See News, 11 Feb 2005) – although a 1984 RSC production of the same play did tour regionally. Miller’s many other now-classic plays include All My Sons, A View from the Bridge and, revived next month in the West End, Death of a Salesman.

Set in 1692 in Massachusetts, The Crucible centres on the reign of terror unleashed during the Salem witchcraft trials, but was in fact a thinly veiled response from Miller to the 20th-century "anti-American" communist witch-hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

In the Swan Theatre, the winter season will begin with RSC associate Gregory Doran heading up a two-part staging of Geoffrey Chaucer’s medieval Canterbury Tales, running in repertory at Stratford from 1 December 2005 to 4 February 2006 (previews from 16 November) ahead of a UK tour and a transfer to Washington DC. Mike Poulton will adapt all 23 of Chaucer’s bawdy tales of pilgrims on the road to Canterbury into two self-contained parts which represent the first time the RSC has ever staged Chaucer.

The season concludes in the Swan with RSC associate director Laurence Boswell’s production of one of Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women, running from 28 February to 1 April 2006 (previews from 16 February). Written circa 1625 and believed to be one of Middleton’s final tragedies, Women Beware Women follows two match-makings in which the characters resort to just about anything – including lies, rape and murder – to increase their material wealth; it ends in wholesale slaughter. Penelope Wilton, currently starring in David Hare’s version of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba at the National, will play the scheming widow Livia.

Commenting on the programming for the 2005/2006 winter season, which precedes a year-long “Complete Works of Shakespeare” festival, running from April 2006 to April 2007 (See News, 14 Sep 2004), RSC artistic director Michael Boyd said:

“Just before we present the first ever Complete Works of Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, it makes sense, even for the RSC, that our winter season this year contains no Shakespeare. We know Shakespeare drew inspiration from Chaucer, so it's appropriate that in the run up to the Complete Works Festival we explore the roots of our theatrical history. The Company has a great track record in bringing classic literary texts to the stage and our new versions of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Dickens' Great Expectations continue this. It's also great to be bringing Declan Donnellan and Nick Omerod, one of the UK's most distinctive creative teams, back to the RSC.

Arthur Miller is one of a handful of 20th-century dramatists to match Shakespeare's deep humanity and his political and spiritual range. It's as a tribute to Miller that we're presenting The Crucible; a timely revival for a play about democracy and moral leadership. And in the Swan we continue our exploration of work by Shakespeare's contemporaries with one of the best-known plays of the period, Middleton's Women Beware Women."

- by Terri Paddock