(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/19; Ambitious … Jonathan Slinger in Richard III by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Roundhouse, London, in 2008. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian.)
The Royal Shakespeare Company survived establishment resistance and economic storms to become a powerhouse. How should it now change?
What’s in a name? Quite a lot, as it happens. In 1960 Peter Hall created a theatrical revolution. He turned a summer Shakespeare festival in Stratford-on-Avon into a year-round enterprise based on a permanent ensemble, a second home in London and a mix of classical and contemporary work. But it wasn’t until 20 March 1961 that the whole enterprise was given the name we know today: the Royal Shakespeare Company. As the director William Gaskill cynically remarked of the new title: “It has everything in it except God.”
Sixty years on, even as we celebrate the RSC’s survival, new questions arise. What is it really for? How does it adapt to a changing world? Do we still believe in large theatrical institutions? What is fascinating, as you look back over the RSC’s history, is how it faced challenges right from the start. West End producers, led by the all-powerful Hugh Beaumont at HM Tennent, felt threatened by its presence in London. The Arts Council, committed to the establishment of a National Theatre, was slow to subsidise the enterprise and always ensured it was treated as the poor relation. Even the grand vision of permanent companies soon lost its idealistic sheen. As early as 1973, Hall, confronting a hostile Arts Council Drama Panel as he took over at the National Theatre, noted how “the radical dreams of yesterday become the institutions of today to be fought and despised”.
At least in the 1960s Hall had the advantage of creating something new. He also found different ways to give the RSC a distinct identity. One was by grand projects such as the 1963 production of The Wars of the Roses: this epic conflation of the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III epitomised the decade’s fascination with the brutality of power politics. Hall also licensed experiment: in 1963 he gave his co-director, Peter Brook, freedom to work on an Artaud-inspired collage, Theatre of Cruelty, with no obligation to achieve a public result but out of which came Brook’s sensational production of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade. For me, however, one of the highlights of the Hall years was his own 1965 Aldwych production of Pinter’s The Homecoming, which offered the unprecedented spectacle of a new play being presented with the same attention to textual detail that the company brought to Shakespeare.
It is easy to romanticise the 1960s but they were heady times. The problem for Hall’s successors has been how to redefine the RSC in a changing world: against, for instance, the context of the economic storms of the 1970s and the Thatcherite marketisation of everything in the 1980s. Astonishingly, the RSC survived but it was often a close-run thing. In 1986 I was part of an Arts Council inquiry into theatre in England chaired by Sir Kenneth Cork. At one meeting, we were presented with a paper advocating the abolition of the RSC to allow its subsidy to be disseminated to regional theatres. The idea was rejected on the grounds that we would sacrifice a national asset without doing enough to salvage the regions. I only mention it now as an example of just how perilous the RSC’s survival sometimes was.