Bard home base enters rehab

Royal Shakespeare Co.'s new a.d. sets plans for recovery

How do you counter the deafening chorus of cheers these days surrounding the National Theater, especially if you’re that other major British theatrical institution, the Royal Shakespeare Co.?

The answer, if you’re 48-year-old Michael Boyd, who last year succeeded Adrian Noble as artistic director, is to do what the company is given $20 million a year in government money to do: Play to the strength of your namesake, Shakespeare, a man whose plays are never past their sell-by date.

“Shakespeare is so valuable a touchstone,” Boyd says, as he sets forward his first full season since taking on a company in considerable disarray, with no London base for productions and a deficit in excess of $4 million. (The National Theater, by contrast, closed out the recent financial year with the tiniest of surpluses.)

Speaking at the season launch and then one-on-one with Variety, Boyd elaborated his thinking behind a 2004 lineup of work that will include four Shakespeare tragedies acted by a newly formed “Core Ensemble” as well as two world premieres (by Zinnie Harris and Joanna Laurens) and a season devoted to the Spanish Golden Age of drama: Cervantes, Tirso de Molina, Lope de Vega and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz.

The man of the millennium, notes Boyd, “refuses, for instance, to settle for observational truth,” instead coupling “extraordinary lyrical sweep with metaphysical implication.” That’s nice, but what does that mean to your average theatergoer? A company, says Boyd, capable of thinking as big as the Bard: “We can all raise the ceiling of our ambition.”

Having Shakespeare as your touchstone can be a mixed blessing. Just ask Peter Hall, who founded the RSC more than 40 years ago before crossing the Thames to spend 15 years running the National.

“To a certain extent, it is a problem,” Hall tells Variety. At the RSC, he recalls, “You find yourself thinking, ‘Oh dear, the plays are coming ’round again, and didn’t we just do that particular one very well?’ ” On the other hand, continues Hall, “Shakespeare did write 37-plus-one plays” — plus-four, if you believe RSC associate Gregory Doran, who adds to the mix not just Fletcher collaboration “The Two Noble Kinsmen” but also “Edward III,” “Cardenio” and a specimen of theatrical apocrypha called “Thomas More.”

Boyd’s introduction of a Core Ensemble in no way prevents former RSC greats from making one-show returns to the company. Judi Dench returns to Stratford in December for the first time since 1979 to play the Countess of Rousillon — a banner role for the late Peggy Ashcroft, in whose footsteps Dench has often followed — in a Doran-helmed “All’s Well That Ends Well”; a commercial transfer to the West End’s Gielgud Theater follows in February.

“There will always be a window for Judi to fit in her Bond dates,” Boyd says. “That’s important for Judi — and, indeed, for Toby.” Toby Stephens, who appeared with Dench in the most recent Bond film, “Die Another Day,” will play Hamlet under Boyd’s direction next year.

In addition to “Hamlet,” the lineup of tragedies will include “Macbeth,” directed by Dominic Cooke, a Royal Court regular who is a newly appointed RSC associate; “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by veteran helmer/writer Peter Gill; and “King Lear,” in which Bill Alexander will direct Corin Redgrave in the title role.

By having a core troupe across the season — more than half the 36-strong ensemble are expected to continue on with the company, combining productions with intensive training and voice work of the sort that has all but vanished — the individual stagings should benefit. Says Boyd: “A company of actors that stays together is able to dig deeper than other people are going to be able to do.”

The aim, he says, is “to redevelop a way of working within the company, focusing on rehearsal rooms and companies of actors — what the RSC can and should do.”

But what about the RSC’s presence in London, which has been notably hit-and-miss of late: While a Noble-helmed “Brand” proved a surprise box office draw over the summer — Ibsen at his most recalcitrant benefiting from the star power of Ralph Fiennes — the Old Vic repertory run of “Coriolanus” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor” lost about $400,000 and shuttered three weeks early, despite terrific reviews for Greg Hicks’ Coriolanus.

More jarring news: There are no plans at the moment for a London run for any of the shows in the current Stratford season, which includes a highly acclaimed repertory pairing, directed by Doran, of “The Taming of the Shrew” and Fletcher’s sequel to it, “The Tamer Tamed,” that the Kennedy Center will see well before London ever does; the plays travel to Washington, D.C., in December. Also without a London home, at least at present: the variably received Stratford Richard III of Henry Goodman.

Boyd hinted that a London home for the RSC would be announced early in 2004, ending 18 itinerant months since Noble pulled the company from the Barbican Center in May 2002.

Nothing if not forward-thinking, Boyd anticipates a 2006 season that would include the entire Shakespeare canon, performed by troupes from across Britain and America, professional and non-professional, with the National and Mark Rylance’s Globe Theater both hoped-for contributors. “We’ll just have a party,” Boyd says of the intended immersion in the Bard. “It won’t be all that sophisticated.”

Boyd’s aspirations, on the other hand, very much are. “The RSC has been accused of being institutionally arrogant,” he says, “and fair enough with Shakespeare as a house playwright.” Then again, this is the man who two years ago directed four of Shakespeare’s eight history plays (the “Henry VI” tetralogy followed by “Richard III”) with a single company of players.

“There is a real hunger for projects of genuine scope and depth,” says Boyd, pointing out that a season of comedies could well follow on from the quartet of tragedies. “No other company has the RSC’s potential”: If Boyd can bear out his words, the British theater had best watch out.

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