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Michael Coveney: Royal 'Sher-speare' Company makes plans as Dame Diana goes solo

Reflections on recent developments in Stratford and some classic critical put-downs

Gregory Doran and Antony Sher at the Critics' Circle Awards
© Dan Wooller

There have been some surprising developments at the RSC lately, not least the impending presentation on the main Stratford stage of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman - the first such staging of a modern classic - for a very short run, presumably with a quick West End transfer in mind. Antony Sher is playing Willy Loman.

Sher - the civil partner of artistic director Gregory Doran - is also playing King Lear next year, and Doran is directing both shows, as he has just directed Sher as Falstaff in the Henry IV plays. It's not exactly shameless, this "family affair" set-up, but it does look a bit cosy, especially when it was strongly rumoured that Doran was passed over for the top RSC post 12 years ago (Michael Boyd got the nod) precisely because the consultancy committee on the appointment feared this might happen.

The greatest RSC Lears in my experience - discounting the best of them all, Paul Scofield - have been Michael Gambon (with Sher as the Fool), John Wood and Robert Stephens, all very different, and there's no reason to suppose that Sher won't be their match. He certainly gave Gambon a run for his money as the capering clown - Gambon is said to have taken him to one side in rehearsals and said, "Tone, 'ere, Tone, this play's called King Lear, not King Lear plus a c*** in a red nose" - which might explain why Gambon was the first Lear in history to have killed the little blighter on stage (he's usually reported "hanged" offstage, though Sylvester McCoy twitched and "suicided" on the end of a rope after delivering the prophecy speech - a brilliant idea - in the RSC Ian McKellen Lear directed by Trevor Nunn).

Doran has defended the choice of the Miller play on the grounds that it's Miller's centenary and a tragedy of Shakespearean provenance, an argument that might have been better made by playing the two works in repertoire. But Sher wants to play Lear bearded and Willy shaven, a pretty lame excuse for not having the two plays done back to back; you could have had two different actors, for a start.

Still, as Brecht said, the proof of the pudding, etc... and I like the sound of the RSC summer "Venice" season, The Merchant of Venice paired with Othello, though having a black Iago will upset the applecart in unexpected ways, I imagine, not least in reminding us that former critic Tim Walker loftily declared that Olivier had "blacked up" as the lieutenant, not the Moor! And two cheers for a strong-looking Swan bill of Ben Jonson's Volpone, Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (a reverberation with The Merchant the RSC has sounded before, with Clive Revill as Shylock and Eric Porter as Barabas; the same actor, really, should play both, but he's already doing Lear and "Lindsay" Loman) and Love's Sacrifice by John Ford.

Good news, too, that the RSC is re-launching The Other Place in Stratford, though nothing has been said about the Courtyard, for which the TOP served as a foyer. That brick incarnation of the first tin hut TOP (which opened with Ben Kingsley's Hamlet, and the best Laertes ever, Stuart Wilson, in 1974) never quite had the knockabout informality of the original. So it's a risk. As Peggy Ashcroft said to me at the opening of the TOP, a theatre either has "an atmosphere" or it doesn't, you can't plan it. The first TOP certainly did, so here's hoping...

Dame Diana launches a solo season

Diana Rigg performing No Turn Unstoned

When he's through with Lear, Sher might be through with Shakespeare - he's been a terrific Richard III, Leontes, Macbeth, Prospero, Titus, Malvolio, Shylock - and might have to follow the example of his great friend Simon Callow and go solo.

Diana Rigg was a founder member of Peter Hall's RSC (she was Cordelia to Scofield's Lear) and has been not reduced, exactly, but diverted into giving an anecdotal lecture based on her anthology of critical stinkers, No Turn Unstoned. Last night she launched this month's lively looking festival of solo performances at the Tristan Bates Theatre, the Actors' Centre, with a one-off repeat of the show first seen at last year's Edinburgh Fringe.

It's not "written" enough, but all the old favourites are in place, not least John Simon's remark about Dame Diana herself when she appeared naked in Abelard and Heloise in New York: "built like a brick basilica with insufficient flying buttresses," a fine example of rudeness tempered with wit, the only way to be rude in print. I always enjoy Walter Kerr's pithy response to John van Druten's I Am a Camera ("Me no Leica") and the destruction of a hapless native American actor, Guido Natzo, who was said to be "Natzo Guido." Although she has a classic passage of Dorothy Parker, I think Dame Di might add in Parker's description of House Beautiful as play lousy, or Kerr's labelling of a Cherry Orchard set in the Deep South as "Kentucky Fried Chekhov." Critics aren't funny any more, are they?