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RSC Extends Three-year Ensemble, Imports Russia

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Following on from the success of the two-and-a-half year Histories project - which saw a company of 34 actors perform the entire eight-play cycle, culminating with a run at the Roundhouse this past March (See News, 28 Jun 2007) – the Royal Shakespeare Company has today announced an even larger, longer-term ensemble.

Ensemble with everything

Increased from 34 to 44 actors – none of whom have yet been named – the new group will come together for three years, starting in 2009, working on both Shakespeare and, for the first time in the Courtyard Theatre, new work, with a variety of “embedded” writers, such as American Tarell Alvin McCraney and Rona Munro, and directors, including recently announced associates Rupert Goold, Kathryn Hunter and outgoing Lyric Hammersmith artistic director David Farr (See News, 20 May 2008).

During its tenure, the ensemble will be entrenched for two major RSC milestones: the “still on time and on budget” reopening of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 2010 after a three-year, £112.8 million rebuild, and the 50th anniversary celebrations of the RSC in 2011.

The Russians are coming

After three years in the planning, RSC artistic director Michael Boyd (pictured) also announced a new four-year strand of work under the title Other Russia. Speaking at a press briefing today in London, Boyd – who trained in Moscow early in his career – commented: “Russia has always sat astride like a giant the East-West divide. They are our European neighbours … or are they? Are they part of Europe or are they not?”

The RSC’s “investigation into the dramatic life of the countries that made up the former Soviet Union” will kick off next year with two large-scale commissions of new plays by Russian writers, both to be premiered in the Courtyard Theatre on 24 September 2009: The Grain Store, Natal’ia Vorozhbit’s epic account of the 1930s Ukrainian famine directed by Boyd and starring Kathryn Hunter; and The Drunks, Mikhail and Vyachelsav Durnenko’s play about a reluctant Chechnyan war hero, directed by Anthony Neilson.

There will be two further premieres in 2009: Rona Munro’s Little Eagles, a history of the USSR-USA space race in the 1960s, directed by Roxana Silbert; and Silence, a new collaboration with Filter directed by David Farr about a British journalist who interviews a Russian theatremaker. Further ahead, there will be new stagings of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov and other less frequently seen classics by Gogol and Chekhov. Other Russia will conclude with an as-yet-unannounced transfer of a major Russian-originated production of a Shakespeare play.

Production précis, new commissions

In addition to the Russian plays, new productions at the 1,000-seat temporary Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon will include, some as previously tipped (See The Goss, 9 Sep 2008):

  • The Tempest (opening 18 February 2009) – A co-production with South Africa’s Baxter Theatre, starring Antony Sher as Prospero and John Kani as Caliban, directed by Janice Honeyman.
    • The Winter’s Tale (opening 9 April 2009) – David Farr’s first RSC production since stepping down from his position at Lyric Hammersmith.
    • As You Like It (opening 29 April 2009) - Michael Boyd’s first production of the Shakespeare comedy, designed by Tom Piper.
    • Julius Caesar (opening 26 May 2009) – Directed by Lucy Bailey, making her RSC debut. Bailey’s other recent Shakespeare credits include Timon of Athens and Titus Andronicus at the Globe.

      There will also be a new tour of Othello starring Patrice Naiambana and directed by Kathryn Hunter. Further ahead (dates still tbc), two more new commissions will radically rework classics. In 2009, Ben Power’s A Tender Thing will reimagine Romeo and Juliet, followed in 2010 by Mike Poulton’s Morte D’Arthur, which will give a new take on the Arthurian legend, directed by RSC chief associate Gregory Doran.

      Rupert Goold will direct Romeo and Juliet in 2010, when other Shakespeare offerings will include new productions of King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra, starring Kathryn Hunter.

      Commenting on today’s announcements, Michael Boyd said: \"We bring an enormously varied programme of Shakespeare and new work together with some of the UK’s most innovative directors, designed to excite and challenge audiences who will be able to watch the acting company develop over time … This particular ensemble is also an historic one, since they will be the actors who open the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 2010, and celebrate our 50th anniversary in 2011.\"

      Facts, figures & recession

      Today’s briefing coincides with the company’s AGM and release of 2007/8 annual report, which details a “very successful” year in which, despite scaling down to just one performance space in Stratford, the RSC sold over 500,000 tickets and took £9.2 million at the box office in Stratford, London and on tour. Across some 858 performances, the RSC played to 81% capacity in Stratford, 87% in London (which included the West End transfer of the Ian McKellen-led King Lear and The Seagull) and 79% globally. For the financial year, which ended 31 March 2008, the RSC generated a surplus of £0.6 million.

      Echoing sentiments expressed by Nicholas Hytner at last week’s National Theatre press conference on publication of its annual report (See News, 17 Sep 2008), Michael Boyd said that the RSC has yet to suffer from the knock-on effects of the current credit crunch and he remains “confident” that it will continue to do well economically. Though the management is watching the situation closely, “so far the needle isn’t trembling”. He said: “I don’t think theatre could be better placed generally – or the RSC specifically – to ride out difficult times”.

      While RSC executive director Vikki Heywood attributed theatre’s good health in large part to government-subsidised affordable ticket schemes, Boyd maintained that the vibrancy is more to do with creatively with theatre “reasserting itself as the most important art form … the art form for now” and one which quintessentially captures our need to collaborate, connect with and understand one another in a “very fragmented time”.

      - by Terri Paddock

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