Greatest show on earth

“The greatest show on earth” was how Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director Michael Boyd (pictured) cheekily advertised ‘The Complete Works Festival’ at its recent launch (See News, 11 Jul 2005).

Looking at the programme you understand the hyperbole. For the first time, all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays are going to be performed in the same place as part of the same event. The biggest single artistic undertaking in the company’s 45-year history, which will run from April 2006 to the April 2007, sees the RSC embracing talent from all corners of the globe and from unexpected parts of the UK to deliver its sweeping survey of the Bard’s oeuvre. Having selected 15 of the plays to produce in-house, the company has put the rest of the canon up for grabs to invited theatre folk.

The RSC’s founder Sir Peter Hall and his successor Sir Trevor Nunn are being lined up to come back. Japan’s Yukio Ninagawa, Germany’s Peter Stein and Belgium’s Luk Perceval will be spearheading the international directing contingent. As for actors, several star-signings have already been declared - Sir Ian McKellen will finally give us his Lear; Dame Judi Dench, opposite whom McKellen starred in Nunn’s legendary 1978 RSC Macbeth, has gone for something lighter, gamely committing herself to a new musical version of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

But there will be a bevy of other British performers on hand too, ranging from relatively well-known troupes such as Edward Hall’s all-male Propeller and Cornwall’s Kneehigh to far fringier outfits like aandbc, Filter and Yellow Earth. Some of these are being put on to the RSC’s main stages, others into a specially built studio space, others again will spread the festival spirit across town in site-specific stagings.

When I meet a buoyed-up Boyd to talk it all through, it’s hard not to get swept along in the party atmosphere; with his wonderfully ruminative way of speaking, and rumpled, donnish air, the 50-year-old draws you into his thought processes with an unforced conspiratorial charm. “It’s going to suit Stratford very well,” he enthuses. “This kind of deal would get lost in London or Paris. It’s going to completely dominate the town. You’re not going to be able to move without bumping into Judi Dench or Ian McKellen heading off for rehearsal or some performance artist doing something Shakespeare-related. You’re going to have the juxtaposition of a Peter Stein with a Peter Hall production within the same week. I think that’s really exciting.”

Ongoing regeneration

His hope is that it’ll provide something akin to the life-changing experience of the Edinburgh festival, which, Belfast-born but Scottish-raised, gave him his passion for theatre during successive summers as a teenager, “bumping into Japanese bunraku puppets, Swiss mime clowns and Russian geniuses”. But it’s neither to compete with other festivals, nor to fulfil a personal dream, that he’s investing so much time and company money (an extra £3 million) to this project; the ambition is for it to push forward the RSC’s much-needed regeneration.

Three years on from being parachuted into one of the toughest hotspots in British theatre, after Adrian Noble exited in April 2002 pursued by baying critics, Boyd is widely seen as having landed on his feet. When he took over, after a stint as an associate, the company’s finances and good name were in tatters following a botched withdrawal from its long-time London base, the Barbican, while there was bitter unrest over demolition plans for the company’s Grade II-listed flagship building, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, in Stratford.

The £2.8 million deficit Boyd inherited has vanished – a result of canny internal reorganisation and a good run at the box-office with the recent Tragedies Season, he says. A decent temporary London home has been found thanks to the “good perchancity” as he puts it, with a Shakespearean flourish, of a five-year deal with impresario Cameron Mackintosh which will provide the RSC with a guaranteed season in one of three newly refurbished West End theatres - the Novello (formerly the Strand), the Albery (to be renamed the Noël Coward) and the Gielgud.

A by-product of the Tragedies’ success has been to confirm the RSC’s enthusiasm for cheap tickets. Following the success of its £5 young people’s tickets at the Albery, the Company is extending the initiative to the Complete Works. “We’ve got a huge policy drive now to make sure that we’ve got as many cheap seats on offer as possible,” he says. “The aim is to introduce the £5 initiative everywhere we go.” Good news, again.

To cap it all, the green light has been given for a £100 million renovation for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, beginning at the festival’s end, that should meet the demand to balance change with continuity. “We’re taking this iconic building and we’re coming to it with grace and tact and confidence,” Boyd promises. “We want to reconfigure the auditorium into a one-room space, and we want to open our doors in a much more welcoming way. The look of it will reflect our desire to throw open our arms to all the people having ice cream and fish and chips in the gardens.” Once that’s achieved, he’ll go about answering the need for an equivalent solution in London.

Open-door policy

A healthier budget and enhanced bricks and mortar won’t in themselves rekindle the RSC’s once trailblazing reputation, though. The Complete Works Festival is bound to be seen as a pivotal moment in his tenure, and its open-door policy is relatively high-risk. It could be interpreted as the company not knowing where it’s headed. But Boyd is unafraid to present it in terms of a learning experience, for host and visitors alike.

“Next year we’ve got work from Russia, Africa, South America, you name it, sitting side by side with our work. Not in the spirit of competition, although there’ll be some of that, but in that real sense of ‘What can you steal? What can you learn? And how can you change? At its best, the RSC has been dedicated to making theatre on retreat. I think that is the most brilliant thing about my job. I’m also aware that if you fail to pay attention to what’s going on outside then you can become introverted, isolationist, out of touch.”

Boyd is incredibly up-front about the company’s problems. When I point out that reviews haven’t been especially adulatory for quite a lot of the Shakespeare work, including his own recent Twelfth Night, and that there were some absolute stinkers for this year’s Hecuba starring Vanessa Redgrave, he concedes: “To be honest, the RSC is still climbing a big hill. When I took over, I said it would take time. With the RSC, we know the tasks we’ve set ourselves, and they are tricky. We have to provide examples of achievable best practise now, even while we’re researching what we think is best practise for the future. Occasionally while we’ve being trying out new ideas we’ve been caught out.”

Ensemble ethos

Boyd’s great mantra is ‘ensemble’, a word which, having trained in Moscow holds only admirable qualities for him, but which can, he knows, sound all too off-putting to the English. In a sense, it’s a question of trust as to whether his strategy of reduced company sizes (down to the 30-40 mark having reached over 100 during the Noble years) and increased rehearsal times (up to 14 weeks) will pay off in the long term.

But he puts a persuasive case. “The task of recommitting ourselves to a long-term investment in our actors, taking seriously issues of training and lifelong development, and that being blindingly evident every night on stage – well, that’s a slow game. And it runs counter to the culture of British theatre-making. We’ve got a long way to go.”

Boyd cites previous tight-knit ensembles as examples of what can and will be achieved – especially last year’s triumphant Spanish Golden Age company and the one he assembled for his Olivier-winning ‘This England’ cycle (Henry VIs and Richard III) back in 2000, an experience he enjoyed so much he’s revisiting it by tackling the entire Histories with the first two-year ensemble under his aegis. That will be in the Courtyard, a new, temporary, 1,000-seat auditorium which will take over from the RST during its closure, and also test out its ‘thrust-stage’ design. “Those companies had a fantastic pressurised intimacy. What I want to do is marry that with a greater degree of preparation time. To embrace the spirit of learning and making art at the same time - that’s what I aspire to.”

Amnesia, anxiety & optimism

The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. All being well, though, by the end of the decade the RSC should have an internal cohesion to match its world-class new architectural features.

Boyd plans to be around to see that day. He’s in no hurry to bail out, he says. Is he enjoying himself? “Enormously. I keep forgetting that it’s three years since I was appointed. It feels like no time at all. And of course in terms of the turning circle of the tanker on the ocean, it’s nano seconds.” No grim moments so far? “Fortunately, I have complete amnesia when it comes to grim moments,” he says, with a smirk.

How, I wonder, will they cope with the immediate aftermath of the festival – won’t it feel like a terrible vacuum, to be filled only with more of the same? He smiles. “One of the things I like about the Complete Works Festival is that it reduces to absurdity the anxiety about the repetition of the repertoire. You’re anxious about it? So have a nervous breakdown! Shakespeare is well proven as someone who is worth revisiting in a thousand different ways.” There speaks a man who, against the odds, has got anxiety down to manageable levels.


Booking for The Complete Works Festival opens on 5 September 2005. Visit the festival website for further details. Dominic Cavendish is deputy theatre critic for the Daily Telegraph and editor of TheatreVoice.com.