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Top Five: Shakespeare Productions in 50 Years at the RSC

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As the Royal Shakespeare Company turns 50, and kicks off its year-long 50th birthday season on the Bard's own birthday this Saturday (23 April 2011), Whatsonstage.com looks back at some of the Shakespeare productions, in recent and not-so-recent memory, that have made and sustained its reputation. By limiting ourselves to five, we've undoubtedly missed out a great many that merit inclusion, so please add your own in the comments section below.

Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1970)
This landmark production ushered in a new era of Shakespearean interpretation. Brook’s white-box, circus-infused staging quickly achieved legendary status and has influenced countless practitioners since. In the director’s own words, “the aim was to appeal to the imagination through a lively, humorous contact between stage and audience”, something he achieved with electrifying results.

Trevor Nunn’s Macbeth (1978)
Take two greats of the modern stage at the peak of their powers (Ian McKellen and Judi Dench) add a young director on the brink of superstardom (Trevor Nunn) and pack all this into one of the country’s most intimate spaces (Stratford-upon-Avon’s The Other Place) and you have a production that has gone down in theatrical folklore as one of the most atmospheric versions of ‘the Scottish play’ ever staged.

Adrian Noble’s King Lear (1982)
Michael Gambon was only in his early 40s when he tackled Lear and was surrounded by a stellar supporting cast including Pete Postlethwaite, Jenny Agutter, Sara Kestelman, Alice Krige and, most memorably of all, Antony Sher as a vaudevillian Fool (two years before his seminal, spidery Richard III). As the New York Times astutely reported, it was a production that confirmed Great Gambon as "an actor of consequence".

Michael Boyd’s Histories (2008)
This theatrical marathon was billed as “a once in a lifetime opportunity”, and so it proved. Charting 100 years of English history, the cycle comprised eight plays - Richard II, Henry IV (Parts I & II), Henry V, Henry VI (Parts I, II & III) and Richard III - a full 24 hours of Shakespeare, all performed by a single company (including David Warner as Falstaff) and directed by current artistic director Michael Boyd. We’re cheating a bit, as it doesn’t constitute a single production, but it undoubtedly ranks as one of the greatest classical staging achievements in recent memory.

Gregory Doran’s Hamlet (2008)
The stage door of the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon witnessed nightly mobs as David ‘Time Lord’ Tennant returned to the company with which he cut his acting teeth to tackle the greatest role of all. With Patrick Stewart as Claudius, Penny Downie as Gertrude and Mariah Gale as Ophelia there was a plethora of talent on show to help make this the definitive Hamlet of our age. It also proved the strength of the RSC ensemble when Tennant was stricken with a back injury during the London run and was seamlessly replaced at the last minute by understudy Edward Bennett (who, when collecting Tennant's Whatsonstage.com Award, joked his more famous colleague "won't be seeing any of it" - quite right too).


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