RSC bard bath makes splash

Projects don’t get much more ambitious than the Royal Shakespeare Company’s year-long festival, the Complete Works. Fest includes productions of a couple of long poems, 150 sonnets and all 37 of the Bard’s plays. So with the program just past the halfway stage and brimming with artistic and box office confidence, a.d. Michael Boyd has earned the right to do a little crowing.

When the season was announced, not everyone was convinced. Since its formation in 1959 under Peter Hall, the RSC’s bread and butter has been its staging of the works of the world’s greatest dramatist, with virtually everything covered within a regular four- or five-year cycle. Was attempting the lot in 12 months anything more than a stunt?

Initially, there may have been little intellectual rationale driving the festival as a whole. But Boyd cheerfully insists the overall effect — particularly from 17 productions from guest companies such as Cheek by Jowl’s “Twelfth Night” in Russian, the Berliner Ensemble’s “Richard II,” “Macbeth” in Polish or “King Lear” in English and Mandarin — has been “to develop and examine our own work.”

He has a point. Running a vast arts organization with a staff of more than 700 (plus actors) and producing a huge annual repertoire at home and on tour, it must be hard to look beyond one’s own company. This mammoth undertaking has widened both the RSC’s outlook and, to use U.K. funding bodies’ favorite term, access.

And with just under half the season still to go, 80% of the budgeted income target has already been met, with more than 450,000 tickets sold, yielding £8.5 million ($16.1 million). A single August holiday weekend saw 8,000 tickets sold for events in five venues playing 98% capacity. One-tenth of those theatergoers were under 25, while 100,000 of them were new to the RSC.

Still to come are Boyd’s productions of all eight of Shakespeare’s history plays with an ensemble gathered to play together over 2½ years.

Prior to Boyd’s arrival in 2002, the RSC was so over-extended that it was closer to an unwieldy corporation than a coherent theater company with anything approaching a vision or house style. Those days look as if they may be disappearing.

The RSC has even managed to cook up a musical for the season. “The Merry Wives of Windsor” boasts a score by Paul Englishby, lyrics by Ranjit Bolt, direction by Gregory Doran and the Falstaff of Simon Callow.

The Mistress Quickly is good news, too: one Judi Dench.

And, yes, she certainly can sing.

London’s first Sally Bowles in “Cabaret,” Dench melted hearts with the ballad “Darkest Before the Dawn” in the Andre Previn/Johnny Mercer musical “The Good Companions.” And had she not torn her Achilles’ tendon during rehearsals, it would have been her and not Elaine Paige as Grizabella singing “Memory” in the original “Cats.”

Dench’s knockout Desiree in “A Little Night Music” at the National won her an Olivier Award. What’s less well known is her party piece: dressing like Baby Jane Hudson and dueting on “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” with Brendan O’Hea. He’s joining her to play Pistol in “Merry Wives,” which has a limited run in Stratford from Dec. 2-Feb. 10. The two of them are likely to face backstage demands for a repeat performance during the run.

Curtain calls

Two of London’s key off West End houses have just announced the ankling of their artistic directors. After a decade at the helm, Mike Bradwell is leaving the 82-seat Bush Theater. One of the most celebrated breeding grounds for new writing, that house premiered first works by Kevin Elyot, Charlotte Jones, Ron Hutchinson and Conor McPherson.

Keen to further this policy, the board will be hunting for directors well versed in developing and staging new work. They also may want someone to help fulfill the theater’s dream of creating a purpose-built new home instead of its current tiny powerhouse squeezed above a pub.

Thea Sharrock also will give up her post as a.d. of the equally small but influential Gate theater in April. The venue famously matched European classics and new work in translation with young directing talent. Dominic Cooke worked there early on, and it was the venue Stephen Daldry ran before he springboarded to the Royal Court and from there to “Billy Elliot” and beyond.

Sharrock’s tenure saw her not only directing well-designed productions of “The Emperor Jones” and “Tejas Verdes” but also shepherding the career of emerging directors. Her proteges have included Daniel Kramer, who improbably gave “Hair” a remarkable new dressing and whose punchy production of “Woyzeck” is playing in Gotham at St. Ann’s Warehouse.

Sharrock’s freelance career is flourishing. Her revival of “A Voyage ‘Round My Father,” with Derek Jacobi, is in the West End, and next year she will direct Daniel Radcliffe, aka Harry Potter, in the first London revival for 30 years of Peter Shaffer‘s “Equus,” opening Feb. 27 at the Gielgud. She’ll be a tough act to follow.

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