The Royal Shakespeare Company has signed a five-year deal to present an annual season of its productions in impresario Cameron Mackintosh’s West End theatres. The partnership will commence this December, when the RSC’s current Stratford-upon-Avon season of four Comedies transfers for a 16-week engagement at the newly renamed and refurbished Novello Theatre, formerly the Strand (See News, 23 May 2005).

A choice of three playhouses

In future, Mackintosh will each year make available one of three playhouses for the RSC’s London season, ultimately fulfilling 70 weeks of Shakespeare programming over five years. In addition to the Novello on the Aldwych, the company will have access to the Gielgud on Shaftesbury Avenue (where its Jacobean season and its production of All’s Well That Ends Well with Judi Dench have been seen in recent years) and the Albery on St Martin’s Lane. The latter reverts from the Ambassadors Theatre Group to Mackintosh this September and, after a major refurbishment planned for the end of 2006, will be re-named the Noёl Coward Theatre (See News, 23 May 2005).

Earlier this year, the 830-seat Albery was the West End residence for the RSC’s four Tragedies, as well as the Vanessa Redgrave-led Hecuba, the company’s first London season under its own flag (rather than through commercial co-productions) since 2002, shortly after its withdrawal from the Barbican Centre. The four Shakespeare plays at the Albery - Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear and Macbeth - played to 87% percent capacity, over 75,000 people during 18 weeks, earning the RSC more than £1.6 million in box office income (30% over target).

The 16-week season of Shakespeare’s Comedies at the Novello will include Gregory Doran’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Nancy Meckler’s The Comedy of Errors (both currently running at Stratford), Dominic Cooke’s As You Like It and RSC artistic director Michael Boyd’s Twelfth Night (which open in Stratford in July and August respectively). The four Comedies make up the RSC’s 2005 Festival Season, running in repertoire at Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre until October.

Building on Les Miserables

Though Mackintosh has never previously been involved with its plays, he does owe much of his fortune to the RSC, having produced Les Miserables, originally a critically-panned RSC staging seen at the Barbican, around the world as well as in the West End, where the musical celebrates 20 years this October.

Speaking today at a press conference held at the Waldorf Hotel, next door to the Strand/Novello, Michael Boyd said that Mackintosh’s success with Les Miserables had effectively made him a “huge patron of the RSC over the years”. The artistic director added that he was happy since now the company’s relationship with Mackintosh “is not just an income column but a proper partnership” though, he was keen to point out, it is not a profit-sharing arrangement.

The RSC will pay the impresario’s Delfont Makintosh Theatres a minimum rental fee plus overhead costs. All box office income will flow into the RSC’s coffers only – not that profits are expected even when the seasons are successful. Aside from covering the high costs of the RSC’s large company productions, profits will be limited by the pricing scheme in which a minimum of 5,000 tickets, including many of the best seats, will be discounted to just £5 for young people.

Explaining his own enthusiasm for their “perfect relationship”, Mackintosh said today, “Now that Delfont Mackintosh Theatres are operating several playhouses, it has always been my ambition to have an ongoing relationship with an internationally acclaimed subsidised company as part of our programming.” With that in mind, he added “our thoughts went naturally to the RSC”.

Long-term London plans

Beyond the new five-year arrangement, the RSC remains committed to finding a permanent, year-round London home, which it has not had since former artistic director Adrian Noble’s controversial decision to end its long-term residence at the Barbican. Boyd said today that the company would concentrate on securing that base in the capital once its Stratford redevelopment is completed. In another reversal of Noble’s decisions, rather than demolish and rebuild in Stratford, its Grade II-listed Royal Shakespeare Theatre will undergo a £100 million transformation into a more intimate auditorium. Work is due to begin on that in spring 2007 (See News, 22 Sep 2004).

In the meantime, Boyd said, the rental agreement with Mackintosh will allow the RSC with its programming and ensemble approach to bring “a different kind of voice, a different kind of rigour” into the West End. “The deal secures the company’s future in London while we continue to search for our long-term home for the RSC in the capital. We’re well advanced now in our plans for a large-scale thrust auditorium in Stratford that Shakespeare would recognise as a theatre. The challenge on the horizon is to find a complementary theatre in London that matches our ambitions for Stratford.”

- by Terri Paddock