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Michael Coveney: RSC water-logged while National flies high

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Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink in Stratford-upon-Avon this week - except in the Dirty Duck, of course - as the river broke its banks and Bill Dudley’s set for The Winter’s Tale in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre included a permanent projected screen of sparkling, then angry, waves lapping around Leontes’s tower in Sicily.

Actually, Sicily in this case is more likely a Pre-Raphaelite fastness in the West Country, and Bohemia a rather dour Victorian seaside resort along the coast outside. It’s a great idea, then, to suggest the tower as both a statement of the king’s remote self-obsession in the play’s first half and of his penitential isolation in the second.

It’s a lively and provocative take on the play that probably, on balance, justifies itself, although there’s far less chance of any sheep-shearing going on among the sideshows and Morris Men than there was even at Nick Hytner’s Glastonbury folk festival in his NT production.

And director Lucy Bailey (in harness with Dudley, her husband) proves again that she thinks bigger, more daringly, and more “metaphorically” than any other RSC director; which is why Gregory Doran should make sure she stays on board in the inevitable reshuffle of associates.

Lucy made it clear in an interview with Whatsonstage.com that she was not constrained by having to cross-cast with any other production. Which is why the excellent Tara Fitzgerald is making an RSC debut. And why, if you look at the programme schedule, every production plays more or less consecutively right through the summer, so that when The Winter's Tale goes on tour, in comes Hamlet followed by As You Like It and then All's Well.

With skilful planning, and threading in the Swan Theatre list, you can just about see several plays in a few days, like you used to be able to do. "Stay six days, see six plays," was the motto of the Perth Rep under the redoubtable Joan Knight, and people used to go on golf and theatre holidays in the late summer and autumn months. But Stratford-upon-Avon has never wholly learned the art of wooing the visitors while at the same time living off their loyalty.

When I booked a room in the Swan Hotel for the night before the half-marathon at the end of April, I was told that, as that week (it's the Shakespeare Birthday week) was fairly fully booked, the prices had been raised. And that I had to be out of that room by eleven o'clock, even though the race didn't start till 9.30 in the morning and I would certainly take two hours plus to complete the course, and would want to shower down and change afterwards.

"Well, we might let you stay in there till 12 noon," the Eastern European receptionist said, bluntly, "but you'll have to be out by 12.30, definitely." We'll see about that; I won't have fixed my hair, bunions and shirt sores by then. On the other hand, or foot, I might be gasping for my pint of shandy in the Duck... 

Meanwhile, Lucy's Winter's Tale is very different from David Farr's a couple of years ago. But which of them is really the RSC's? This is always the problem new artistic director Doran is going to have. You can't define what the company is if the same company isn't doing the majority of the work.

This isn't a problem for Nick Hytner, nor should it be, but his announcement this week of his future plans smacks more of being his own National Theatre than ever: more Shakespeare (interesting that his Othello opens on Shakespeare's birthday, 23 April, stealing the date from the RSC who open As You Like it on the next night); Howard Davies doing another Gorky (and that's a steal from the RSC, too); rare Eugene O'Neill with the NT's brilliant Saint Joan, Anne-Marie Duff, taking the Lynn Fontanne/Glenda Jackson role of Nina Leeds in Strange Interlude ("I feel a Strange Interlude coming on, " said Groucho Marx in 1928); and Richard Eyre popping back to do a little-known Pirandello in a new version by Tanya Ronder.

One of the most astonishing statistics unearthed in a week when the Society of London Theatres has claimed that, despite the recession, business is booming, is that in London in 2012, 35 percent of all playgoers were watching National Theatre productions on the South Bank and in the West End.     

By this spring, the NT will have no less than four shows bolstering the West End: Alan Bennett's Untold Stories, the Simon Stephens/ Mark Haddon Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, War Horse and One Man, Two Guvnors. They will be able to celebrate their 50th birthday with heads held very high later this year.


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