One door closes, another Doran opens
We haven't even reached the Edinburgh Festival and my pantomime file is already active, and now we're peering into the New Year. But some developments creep towards us even quicker than that. I was surprised to see, as a footnote to a Sunday Times feature on Gregory Doran's brilliant new "all black" Julius Caesar at Stratford-upon-Avon, that not only was the production "in the can" for BBC television transmission later this month, but that the show was already booked into the Noel Coward in London from early August.
I'm sure this must have been announced at some stage, but somehow the news was news to me. Not only that, Julius Caesar will be followed in the Noel Coward by Meera Syal as Beatrice in yet another West End Much Ado, a production that will soon be having a straight run in the Courtyard in Stratford-upon-Avon.
What's that, I hear you cry? We all thought that the Courtyard was a temporary stop-gap for the re-build of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre over the road, which is now fully up and running. Well, the RSC can't bear to say good-bye to the Courtyard, and now have plans to turn it into a re-conceived complex of small studio theatre (a re-born The Other Place), rehearsal space and costume storage and display facility.
Whether they can do this or not depends on the local council approving the plans, less so, probably, on the RSC riding the chorus of disapproval from local townsfolk who had been promised that the Courtyard would be dismantled once the new theatre opened.
In the meantime, Gregory Doran is already imposing his authority on the company he takes charge of next year. There was a weekend of celebrations to coincide with the diamond jubilee for his civil partnership with Antony Sher, and Julius Caesar had a gala, "special invitation" launch - and after party - on Saturday three days ahead of the official Press night on Wednesday.
Julius Caesar is clearly a "stand alone" RSC show that will have played only three dozen performances in Stratford before closing there, playing for ten days in Newcastle in advance of the West End, then resuming a UK tour for a few weeks in late September. I wonder if this will be the pattern once Doran brings back "star names" to the company, as he promises? Actors need only commit to six months on that basis.
The "star name" of the RSC always used to be that of the RSC itself, but when Doran's production of All's Well That Ends Well went to the West End, Judi Dench was given unprecedented billing on the posters. That show was co-presented by Doran's great friend and mentor Thelma Holt (funded by Bill Kenwright), as was his breakwaway season of rare Jacobean plays.
Different times, different mores, no doubt, but I think we need to keep a careful eye on how exactly the Doran RSC develops once the permanent London home is established: the company is always bigger than anyone who runs it, and the first job Doran has is to build on Michael Boyd's initiative in re-establishing an ensemble identity and producing new young actors within that framework.
It was good, though, to see Stratford looking more like itself on Wednesday, even if the old frontage of the theatre still looks as inviting as a brick mausoleum (the Waterside frontage resembles an Oxford Street department store, but that's another issue). Surely it's time to put out more flags?
There was an impromptu fair in front of the theatre for the jubilee, and I wonder if I was the only member of the Critics Circle who took advantage of the helter skelter before the opening? Well, Doran's production opens with a buzzing carnival to mark the Feast of Lupercal, so it seemed appropriate to slide down at speed on a coconut mat before throwing a few hoops at fluffy toys and other unwanted prizes.
Doran's Julius Caesar goes at a tremendous lick, and is played without an interval. Fine by me, but I also much enjoyed Steven Pimlott's version some years ago (Robert Stephens as Caesar) which took its time in more traditional vein; and of course a very good Globe Theatre revival that took an interval between each act, and that pointed up the play just as successfully. Doran rather skimps on the downside of the play (ie, what happens after you kill a dictator), probably because he thinks it's more boring than the first half.
Anyway, once you've seen Caesar done like this, it's hard to think of it being done any other way. It really does come across as Shakespeare's "African" play, not least because it's basically just about a dictator, a coup and a civil war that follows.
And it's fascinating to learn that at least three of the cast - Cyril Nri as an unusually jumpy Cassius, Ivanno Jeremiah as a chilling Octavius and Adjoa Andoh as a beautiful Portia - have a direct connection with the upheavals on their home continent: Nri's family was caught up in the Biafran conflict, Jeremiah's mother fled from the tyranny of Idi Amin, and Andoh's father, a journalist, was forced to leave Ghana when life became dangerously uncomfortable.