Michael Coveney: Doran comes clean at RSC, Holmes stays secret at the Lyric
Greg Doran had a few things up his sleeve at this morning's RSC press conference at the Cambridge Theatre (home of the RSC's smash hit Matilda), but he soon shook his shoulder, and his long mane of Trevor Nunn-style hair, and out they tumbled.
I was wrong - shock, horror - in my blog the other day! He and the RSC haven't given up on Two Gentlemen of Verona. Undaunted by the debacle of John Barton's long-ago double bill of Two Gents and Titus, he's putting the damned thing on the main Stratford stage - because he actually likes it and is not even planning to turn it into a musical, as Hair composer genius Galt MacDermot once did on Broadway (and in London with the great Raul Julia playing one of the leads) and David Thacker did for the RSC in a 1920s style version that proved hugely popular.
It will be the first main stage revival in Stratford for 45 years and Simon Godwin - either fresh, flummoxed or finished from directing Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude at the National - will make an RSC debut with it next July.
This will follow Doran's own Henry IV Parts One and Two revival starring his civil partner Antony Sher as Falstaff - a suggestion of Ian McKellen, apparently; Sher is looking forward to preparing with a pasta diet, though he still expects to wear a fat suit.
The Henrys will follow Richard II with David Tennant into the Barbican next year, extending this reconcilation with the house they had built to their specification but which they abandoned in a cloud of acrimony."We don't want a London home, but a London base," said Doran, suggesting the search for a permanent address in the capital is now over.
I regard this as a bombshell. Instead, Doran reiterated the mantra that the RSC's home is in Stratford, where the Courtyard's steel box will now house a new Other Place - "a place for radical mischief" alongside costume storage and rehearsal rooms. The locals are placated, his deputy Erica Whyman assured us, having been previously promised that the Courtyard would be abandoned once the new RST was up and running.
I love the fact that the Swan is seriously re-dedicated to the Elizabethan and Jacobean repertoire, and it's terrific news that a trilogy of female directors is ripping into Decker and Middleton's The Roaring Girl (which Helen Mirren memorably rescued from oblivion for the RSC in 1983 as a thigh-booted, swaggering Moll Cutpurse), Arden of Feversham (which RSC governor and in-house scholar Jonathan Bate now claims contains some of Shakespeare's earliest writing) and Webster's magnificent The White Devil, always tricky to pull off.
But how about this for another bombshell: a tour of A Midsummer Night's Dream will cast Bottom and all the mechanicals from local amateur groups wherever they go on a regional tour: "Titania will have to kiss twelve Bottoms," said Doran, relishing the prospect probably more than Titania herself will.
This will be part of "Dream 16" and will also involve the schools already participating in the RSC Education department led by Jacqui O'Hanlon; they will supply the fairies for Titania's train. A "reverse gender" Taming of the Shrew for 8-13 year-olds is also planned and, in six years' time, half the Shakespearean canon will be live to screen, and on DVD, with educational packages to boot.
Tackling the accusation that this was expansionism gone mad, with more than a hint of global domination, Doran passionately re-asserted that the RSC would be an ensemble of actors led by a few great ones (the plays are "hierarchical" in character structure, he said, refreshingly booting the democratic principle of "no small parts" into the long grass, and that the speaking of verse was right back at the centre of the work. And that Matilda was hopefully going Down Under, but not re-named, even if dubbed, "Waltzing Matilda."
In stark contrast, Sean Holmes is keeping his cards close to his very hairy chest at the Lyric in Hammersmith. No titles are announced for his season of "Secret Theatre" during the re-build, and no programmes were issued in advance of last night's opening of the first production, which turned out to be an ambitiously radical version of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.
That secret, at least, is now out. How could it not be, unless we wrote our reviews in invisible ink, or ignored the season altogether? The promise of having the stalls in the auditorium boarded over with a platform stage has not yet materialised - the show was performed within the usual proscenium, though the place is draped with heavy duty plastic sheeting - but who knows what happens next?
Lyric customers will have to traipse all the way downstairs to the Italian cafe next door for their interval drinks and the actors will have to get used to the audience not knowing who the hell they are, or what else they've done, as the programme sheet given out at the end is skimpy to the point of anorexia.
It's an interesting experiment to say to an audience: come and see us, but we can't tell you what you are paying to see. The stripping away of preconceptions, the attempt to renew the sort of participatory trust of an audience unconditioned by some kind of after-dinner social contract, is all very salutary.
It seems to follow a trend set by Vicky Featherstone's "Open Court" season earlier this year. But there is a risk more serious than a commercial one, a risk of audiences forgetting to bother to make the effort, especially when they don't know what's going on.