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Beyond the Bard

London theatergoers could be forgiven for imagining the Royal Shakespeare Company was adopting a policy beyond the bard. Its ambitious, yearlong festival of the complete works of Shakespeare has just begun at its home base in Stratford-upon-Avon, but the RSC is also busily playing away at other things.

Dominic Cooke‘s piercingly intelligent, beautifully designed production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” is winning raves for its run at the Gielgud, and for the last couple of weeks, the RSC has been presenting the cream of its 2005 new work festival for a season at London’s Soho Theater.

The big hit of the new work fest was Fraser Grace‘s “Breakfast With Mugabe,” a 90-minute, fictitious study of the despotic president of Zimbabwe and the directorial debut of Antony Sher. Play was such a hit that producers Thelma Holt, Bill Kenwright and Nica Burns are presenting it at the 400-seat Duchess Theater (for 40 perfs only), one of four playhouses Burns recently bought with Max Weitzenhoffer.

The title role again will be played by Joseph Mydell, an Olivier Award winner for his Belize in “Angels in America” at the National and, more recently, a marvelously arch Jacques in Cooke’s sunny “As You Like It.”

If all goes according to plan, Holt and Kenwright will then follow their “Crucible” with an even more ambitious project: a cast of 22 plus three musicians in a two-part, six-hour epic dramatization of Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.”

“Canterbury” is at Washington’s Kennedy Center playing to what Rebecca Gatward, one of the show’s three directors, happily describes as “very responsive, very vocal audiences in a 1,000-seat auditorium that is rapidly selling out.”

The plan, still in negotiations, is to bring the show to the Gielgud in July, where it will test the company brand and the producers’ nerve. Will auds pay twice to see both parts in a West End that spoils them for choice? Kenwright is sanguine.

“Does it make commerical sense? ‘The Crucible’ didn’t make sense until those fantastic reviews. Of course it’s a huge risk, but my hits allow me to take flyers on things. And there’s a part of me that never wants to consider the commercial side. Some things you just have to do.”

The strangest things happen at curtain calls. Picture the scene: It’s June 1, 1994, and Julia McKenzie, Britain’s foremost Sondheim interpreter, is taking her final bow as Mrs. Lovett, the lynchpin in the National Theater production of “Sweeney Todd.” As she rises up, she’s suddenly overwhelmed by a single thought: “I’ll never play a role as wonderful as this again.” Right there and then, she gave up singing.

Having stuck to her guns for 12 years, she’s returning … for one night only.

On May 21, she will be back onstage for the 30th anniversary gala performance of “Side by Side by Sondheim.” And, happily, she’s sharing the limelight with Millicent Martin and David Kernan, all of whom created the show in London and again on Broadway. “We were all nominated for Tonys … we all lost! We’re thinking of renaming it ‘We’re Still Here’,” she laughs, “or maybe ‘One and a Half Tones Lower.’ ”

They’re each doing four or five numbers, with the rest shared by illustrious performers long associated with Stephen Sondheim, from Simon Green — about to return in the West End transfer of “Sunday in the Park With George” — to Alison Jiear, Louise Gold and Cleo Laine, in whose theater at Wavendon the show began.

The gala, attended by the composer, will take place at the recently and very handsomely refurbished Novello Theater. It’s an apt location given “Side by Side” was the first big hit for its owner, who, back then, was just a lowly young producer by the name of Cameron Mackintosh.

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