Fourteen months after he was first announced as the next artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Michael Boyd has begun to make real his vision for the UK's classical theatre flagship (See News, 25 Jul 2003). At a press conference held this morning at Home House in London, Boyd officially announced his inaugural season at Stratford which - after the 'lean' period of transition between himself and the embattled outgoing chief Adrian Noble - sees the company re-establishing a robust ensemble of actors working across a dense repertoire of work, old and new (See Today's Other News).

Ensemble at the heart

Following the already announced winter schedule (See News, 11 Jul 2003) - which finds a Christmas showing of Laurence Boswell's Beauty and the Beast accompanied by a double-header in the Swan of All's Well That End Well and Othello starring, respectively, Dame Judi Dench and Antony Sher - Boyd's Festival 04 will kick off in March 2004 with a season of Shakespeare's Tragedies in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

Four plays - Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear and Boyd's own production of Hamlet with Toby Stephens in the title role - will be performed by the so-called RSC Core Ensemble of 36 actors. The establishment of the Ensemble is designed to increase opportunities for training and experimentation and will go hand in hand with a major expansion in rehearsal time. Instead of the usual six to eight weeks, the Ensemble will benefit from around 12 weeks dedicated to rehearsing.

Commenting on the changes, Boyd said: "The aim is to put that spirit of experimentation and enquiry back at the heart of the RSC. We're able to paint on a large canvas, working with big ideas in depth over a longer period than is possible for most theatre companies, which gives us a responsibility to experiment, to take risks. We need to reassert our faith in theatre as a quintessentially collaborative art form, an ensemble where the whole can be so much bigger than the sum of its parts.

"We've always had a reputation as somewhere where actors cut their teeth, but now I think we've got a real chance to make coming to the RSC a transforming experience. I want actors, at every stage in their careers, to come to the RSC and give performances they didn't know they were capable of."

Spaniards & New Work

Playing opposite the Core Ensemble in the Swan will be a smaller ensemble of 20 actors in the Swan presenting four rarely performed plays by Shakespeare's contemporaries from the Spanish Golden Age - Lope de Vega's The Dog in the Manger, Tirso de Molina's The Vengeance, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz's House of Desires and Miguel Cervantes' Pedro, The Great Pretender - presented in new versions by modern writers including Craig Raine and James Fenton.

The Spanish Golden Age season - which builds on the success of last year's Olivier Award-winning Jacobean season - will be curated by Laurence Boswell who, in addition to his many credits in the West End and elsewhere, was from 1991 to 1996 artistic director of London's Gate Theatre, where he himself won an Olivier for his exploration of plays from this period.

In September 2004, at the end of the Festival Season, both companies will come together to launch the RSC's first annual New Work Festival. This two-week event is intended to provide a platform for premieres of new plays, devised work and experimental productions of Shakespeare's classics. Next autumn, it will feature world premieres of new plays by Zinnie Harris (Further Than the Furthest Thing and Joanna Laurens (whose Five Gold Rings premieres at the Almeida this winter) as well as new version of Pontius Pilate. Visiting theatre practitioners will also stage rehearsed readings, improvised performances and other events as part of the New Work Festival.

Looking to London

Formerly an RSC associate director, Michael Boyd officially took over as artistic director on 1 April 2003 (See News, 31 Mar 2003). He has yet to publicly tackle the two thorniest legacies of his predecessor's controversial final years: the withdrawal from the Barbican Centre residency which has left the company homeless in London and proposed Stratford redevelopment plans involving demolition of the Grade II-listed Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

At today's press conference, Boyd admitted that he had "slowed down" final decisions on these changes. Having a London presence is, however, "absolutely crucial" for the RSC and, he said, an announcement would be made at the start 2004 about a temporary residence, which will see the company through the next four to five years, starting with the transfers from the Tragedies and Spanish Golden Age productions in October 2004. Three organisations have been shortlisted for this short-term fix.

A longer-term London solution will hinge heavily on what happens with the RSC's home base in Stratford, and that, according to Boyd, depends on what's happening with tourism proposals affecting all in the Warwickshire market town. "The reinvention of Stratford can no longer rest on its laurels and it knows that. The RSC has got to be right at the front of that effort to make Stratford a place people want to go to."

See Also, Today's Other News: "RSC Festival Features Redgrave, Thomas, Stephens"