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Michael Coveney: Christmas comes early at the RSC

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So much for the summer of sport. First thing you see in the Nuffield, Southampton, this week is a Christmas tree and fairy lights. Next thing you hear is "Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way..."

Of course, it must be King Lear. Come again? Well, it's an 80-minute digest of Lear by Tim Crouch, Paul Copley in the lead, for the RSC's Learning department, touring to schools from Newcastle to Truro and back again (with stop-offs in New York and Ohio).

It's a very clever digest, too, though they must be paying a fortune in performance rights for the Bing Crosby versions of "Winter wonderland" and "Let it snow" (making "Blow winds, and crack your cheeks," a tad superfluous), "Better watch out, Santa's on his way," (a little cruel after the eye-gouging) and "Silent Night" (for the hovel scene).

It all sort of works, lining up the cruel tragedy with other bad behaviour at holiday-time classics such as Alan Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular, though Judy Garland singing "Have yourself a merry little Christmas" might not be what Copley wants to hear by the time he's taken out of the grave and is bound on a wheel of fire.

And it makes a convenient "compare and contrast" for weekly columnists with the Jonathan Pryce Lear at the Almeida, even if it is a bit like hearing Beethoven's Fifth on a penny whistle.

A recorder, in fact, as the three daughters pipe us in and out with Christmas cheer and Auld Lang Syne. Copley doesn't really have enough time, or words, to burrow into the heart of the king, but he's very good at turning his bluff exterior into petulant rage.

Nor does he come within a mile of Pryce's lyrical senility in the last scenes, nor is the arc of play, its superb plotting and architecture, done any sort of justice. But for a crowd of eight year-olds, it's just the job. And some of it very unexpected.

The clifftop encounter between Tyrone Huggins' full-throated Gloucester and Dharmesh Patel's heart-broken Edgar really works as well as the same scene at the Almeida.

And it's a brilliant idea to double Kent with the Fool, as though the loyal friend dons motley just as Edgar does the guise of Poor Tom to get closer to their deluded loved ones. This is a terrific example of making creative virtue of necessity: the RSC has nine actors on tour, the Almeida the luxury of a full hand of seventeen.

Yesterday's lunchtime matinee was a tempting jaunt between Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic and Three Sisters last night at the Young Vic, Waterloo Station my travel hub for all three shows.

It was a quick dash to the coast, and RSC press agents - Dean Asker (neat and natty Eurovision song contest addict) and Nada Zakula (sultry Serbian via Wolverhampton) - bundled a few of us into a taxi to the university campus and the Nuffield.

"Someone could sit on my lap, but the rest of me is sitting there already," said jovial, Falstaffian FT critic Ian Shuttleworth as we hurtled on our way. My only real complaint is that Dean and Nada didn't lay on a few mince pies and cups of mead in the spirit of the show.

And then the hammer blow: Nada is leaving the RSC after ten years, simultaneously with Michael Boyd and Vicki Heywood, her artistic and executive directors. She's going to work for the international wing of the War Horse operation in London.

Nada's leaving party is this weekend. The RSC invited the Press to bid farewell to Boyd and Heywood in an upstairs room in Brown's, St Martin's Lane, on Wednesday evening. Boyd was as relaxed as I've seen him, happily talking about future plans, without too much detail, once he's completed work on his final (for now) RSC production, Boris Godunov. There are several projects bubbling under but nothing, refreshingly, involving an opera house. His sole concern is to continue doing what he most enjoys: working in a rehearsal room.

He's done a great job at the RSC, restoring morale and impetus, opening the new Stratford theatre and the refurbished Swan, generously accommodating other talented directors (notably his chief associate and successor, Greg Doran) and forging a series of spirited ensemble companies.

Vicki Heywood is off to run the Royal Society of Arts one day a week and is open to offers for the other six. But she, too, deserves a break after going straight from running the Royal Court to the RSC. I just wonder if, as seems probable, Dominic Cooke succeeds Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre, she might not turn up there in some capacity...


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