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Roxana Silbert On … Dunsinane & Joining the RSC

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Roxana Silbert recently joined the Royal Shakespeare Company as an associate director, having spent four years as artistic director of new writing company Paines Plough.

She is currently directing David Grieg's Dunsinane, as part of the RSC's residency at Hampstead Theatre, where it continues until 6 March 2010.

It was a really difficult decision. I was approached and asked if I would like to join the RSC as an associate director. For almost a year I ran Paines Plough and worked for the RSC, but I didn’t feel I could do the two as well as I’d like and had to make a choice. I'd run Paines Plough for four years, a good cycle that either you move on from or you reinvent yourself and the company. I knew I left it in a very healthy place, both artistically and financially. I had a really good team working there; I just felt it was the right point to move into the RSC. The attraction was doing new work, which is what I love. It’s on a much bigger scale than I could ever afford to do at Paines Plough, so I’m excited. Also, the opportunity to direct some Shakespeare is fantastic.

David Farr, Rupert Goold, and I started together. I think the great thing is that we’re all crossing over. It’s great for the company. They’re slightly different beasts, new writing directors and classical directors, and having the cross specialization is really creative and exciting.

Dunsinane begins at the point when Macbeth is killed, following the story of a commander called Siward. He is an English commander who has been sent to put Malcolm on the throne. It’s about his struggle as an Englishman coming into Scotland. (Writer) David Greig worked with a historian who just published a book called The Real Macbeth. Interestingly, Shakespeare took a lot of liberties with the historical truth. There’s a lot that’s not known, but what is known, David has integrated into the play. It’s very much about what happens once you’ve toppled a dictator and how you create a better society than the one that existed before.

I think it’s very conscious that this story is so topical. What’s great about setting the play in the past is that there are extraordinary similarities between ancient Scotland and Afghanistan. But it’s not just about any current war. It’s a global look at what happens when you try to take over a culture. The key thing about the play is the character that is driving that new society has good intentions. He’s a good man trying to do a good thing, not a cynical politician. He wants to do the best, but the best is very difficult to achieve.

The language is the thing that David struggled with the most, because it can't sound too modern, but at the same time shouldn't sound oddly archaic. I think he's done a great job with it - his language is fast and poetic. He's chosen to only use words that were invented before a certain period. When you’re trying to portray an older society, people are not only speaking differently, but they’re thinking differently. So you’ve got to find a language that reflects their thought process.

Over the summer we spent a few days in Scotland with some really brilliant actors, one of whom was Brian Ferguson (who’s portraying Malcolm). We were just workshopping around the documents that David had put together. He had to figure out how to write this epic play in a way that feels true to him, and he found a very organic, fluid way of writing. After that workshop he wrote a first draft, and then wrote a second which we brought into rehearsal. What he is brilliant at is working with the actors, so what you’ll see was worked on a lot with them. That’s been really exciting.

As far as the setting, we wanted a space that would give us an epic quality. The Hampstead stage is big, so it allows the plays to breathe. It was about finding the right place for the play rather than having to write the play for the place. I think it’s really healthy to find new places to perform, because different bits of London attract different audiences. Hackney Empire gets a very different audience than Hampstead, for example.

Unfortunately, I think the RSC is under threat in these economic times because it relies a lot on personal giving and corporate subsidy and donation. Those are the first you notice dwindling. People’s personal monies get withdrawn much quicker than public ones. This also comes at a moment when the RSC is trying to open two new theatres so there is quite a lot of financial demand. I do think that if the quality of the work is good enough it’ll continue to attract support. But I think all cultural companies, whether they are privately or publicly subsidised, are going to face a difficult few years. What’s interesting is that people are still coming to the theatre and actually the figures for audience attendances are strong, which suggests that people want to come and see theatre despite their difficult financial situation. 


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