Royal Shakespeare Company

Royal Shakespeare Company

The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is a British theatre company. Located primarily at Stratford-upon-Avon, with bases also in London and Newcastle, it is one of the United Kingdom's two most prominent publicly-funded theatre companies, alongside the Royal National Theatre.

Company history

The early years

The RSC's history dates back to Wednesday, 23 April 1879 when the newly completed Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon staged its first production, "Much Ado About Nothing", a title which gave ammunition to several critics.

The Memorial, a red brick Gothic cathedral, designed by Dodgshun and Unsworth of Westminster, was unkindly described by Bernard Shaw as “an admirable building, adaptable to every purpose except that of a theatre.” But from 1919, under the direction of William Bridges-Adams and after a slow start, its resident New Shakespeare Company became one of the most prestigious in Britain.

The theatre received a Royal Charter of Incorporation in 1925, which gave it a certain status. But this was short-lived because on the afternoon of 6 March 1926, when a new season was about to commence rehearsals, smoke was seen, then fire broke out and the mass of half-timbering chosen to ornament the interior provided good dry tinder. By the following morning the theatre was a blackened shell. The company transferred its Shakespeare festivals to a converted local cinema, but fund-raising began for the rebuilding of the theatre, with generous donations arriving from philanthropists in America.

In January 1928, following an open competition, the 29 year old Elisabeth Scott was appointed architect for the new theatre. So the theatre became "the first important work erected in this country from the designs of a woman architect". [Pringle, p.29] Her modernist plans for an art deco structure came under fire from many directions, but the new building was opened triumphantly on Shakespeare's birthday, 23 April 1932. Later it was to come under the direction of Sir Barry Jackson in 1945 ["State of the Nation: British Theatre Since 1945" by Michael Billington, Faber (2007) ISBN 9780571210343] , Anthony Quayle from 1948 to 1956 and Glen Byam Shaw 1957-1959, with an impressive roll call of actors. Indeed Scott's building, with some minor adjustments to the stage, remained in constant use until 2007 when it was finally closed for a major refit of the interior.


Foundation and history

In 1959, while still the Director-designate of the Memorial Theatre, Peter Hall announced that the formation of a permanent company would be a primary objective. As David Addenbrooke records in his study of "The Hall Years", Hall believed that Shakespeare, more than any other dramatist, needed a 'style', a tradition and unity of direction and acting. On 14 January 1960, Hall's first policy statement as Director also proposed the acquisition of a second theatre, in London, to be used as a city outlet for selected Stratford productions. The RSC was formally established on 20 March 1961 with the Royal announcement that the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre would henceforth be known as the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the company as the Royal Shakespeare Company.

:The critic Michael Billington, summarising these events wrote: “In 1960 the twenty-nine year old Peter Hall formally took charge at Stratford-upon-Avon and set about turning a star-laden, six-month Shakespeare festival into a monumental, year-round operation built around a permanent company, a London base and contemporary work from home and abroad. Looking back, it is difficult to realise just how radical Hall’s dream was at the time; or indeed how much opposition there was to the creation of what became officially known in March 1961 as the Royal Shakespeare Company.” ["State of the Nation: British Theatre since 1945" by Michael Billington]

John Barton had been appointed Associate Director in January 1960 [Michael Billington, Guardian 2006 feature:,,1703972,00.html] , and was followed in 1962 by Michel Saint-Denis, Peter Brook and Clifford Williams who joined the company as resident directors. John Bury was appointed Head of Design in 1964. The repertoire was also widened to take in modern work and classics other than Shakespeare.

In 1962 strong opposition to the establishment of a London base for the RSC came from the National Theatre which — led by Viscount Chandos and Laurence Olivier — wished to be the sole subsidized company operating in London. But following a deal with Prince Littler, managing director of Associated Theatre Properties, the RSC successfully established the Aldwych Theatre as its London base for productions transferred from Stratford to London, its stage redesigned to match the RST's apron stage.

Twenty years later, in the summer of 1982, the company took up London residence in both the Barbican Theatre and The Pit studio space, part of the Barbican Arts Centre under the auspices of the City of London. But while the RSC had been closely involved in the design of these two venues, in 2002 it left the Barbican after a series of allegedly poor seasons, also because the then artistic director, Adrian Noble, wanted to develop the company's touring performances. His decision has left the company without a regular London home.

Innovation and growth

The RSC had first tackled its need for a small auditorium in 1971. At the insistence of Trevor Nunn (who had taken over as artistic director in 1968), the company hired The Place off the Euston Road in London and constructed its own theatre space for an audience of 330, seated on raked wooden benches. Two seasons of plays were staged in 1972 and 1973, none suitable for the Aldwych. But in December 1973 Buzz Goodbody, a promising young director, drew up a plan for what would become The Other Place studio theatre in Stratford, designed by Michael Reardon to seat 140 people, which opened to a first and highly successful season in 1974. The name chosen for the new studio space was favoured within the company because it implied an alternative theatre, but also because it was a quotation from "Hamlet".

In August 1976, Nunn staged "Macbeth" with a minimalist set at The Other Place. playing for 2 hours 15 minutes without an interval. The small, nearly round stage focused attention on the psychological dynamics of the characters. Both Ian McKellen in the title role and Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth received exceptionally favourable reviews. The production transferred to London, opening at the Donmar Warehouse in September 1977 before its further transfer to the larger Young Vic venue for a two-month season. It was also recorded for transmission by Thames Television. In 2004, members of the RSC voted Dench's performance the greatest by an actress in the history of the company.

Summing up this triumphant period, The Guardian critic Michael Billington later wrote: In 1977 "the RSC struck gold. This was, in fact, the perihelion of Trevor Nunn's ten-year reign as the company's sole Artistic Director and Chief Executive (in 1978 he began to share power with Terry Hands). In London, the company opened a new studio space at the Donmar Warehouse with plays by Barker, Taylor, Bond and Brecht. Its Aldwych repertory combined the usual Stratford transfers with Nichol's "Privates on Parade", Ibsen's "Pillars of the Community" and Brecht's "The Days of the Commune". At the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Terry Hands and actor Alan Howard had a marathon year working on "Henry V", a virtually uncut, "Henry VI, part 1", "Henry VI, part 2" and "Henry VI, part 3" and "Coriolanus". And the action at The Other Place included Jonson, Ford, Musset, Gems and Rudkin. No other company in the world could match that output for quantity and quality." ["One Night Stands" by Michael Billington, Nick Hern Books (1993) ISBN 1854591851] .

Trevor Nunn and Terry Hands were joint artistic directors of the RSC when the company opened The Swan, its then third theatre in Stratford. The Swan Theatre, also designed by Michael Reardon, has a deep thrust-stage and a galleried, intimate 430-seat auditorium. The space was to be dedicated to playing the works of Shakespeare's contemporaries, the works of European writers and the occasional work of Shakespeare. The theatre was launched on 8 May 1986 with a production of "The Two Noble Kinsmen" by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher (not published until 1634 and thought to be Shakespeare's last work for the stage). It was directed by Barry Kyle [] .

Troubled times

Nunn (who had been appointed to follow Hall's tenure at the National Theatre in 1986) ceded his RSC executive directorship to his co-artistic director Terry Hands, who was then to take the brunt of media hostility during a difficult few years for the company. It was Hands also who took the difficult decision to suspend the RSC's residency at The Barbican Theatre and The Pit during the winter season of 1990-91 thus vacating the capital for the first time in 30 years. But this was seen as an essential act for the RSC in securing an increase in subsidy from the Arts Council.

Shortly after that decision Adrian Noble returned to the RSC to take over from Hands as artistic director and chief executive, inheriting a company with serious funding problems. His decision to sever all RSC connexions with the Barbican Centre, funded by the Corporation of the City of London, was widely condemned, and towards the end of his tenure things began to go terribly wrong: mainly caused by his pursuit and support of the so-called Project Fleet, a radical scheme aimed at rescuing the RSC from its financial crisis by replacing the Royal Shakespeare Theatre with a crowd-pleasing ‘Shakespeare Village’ and streamlining the company's performance structure and ensemble principle.

A 21st Century renaissance

None of these plans were to come to fruition and Noble left the job, an unhappy man, in March 2003 ["Vile. Hateful. A horrible time": Daily Telegraph, 2004 [] ] . Michael Boyd then assumed control of the RSC, now burdened with a deficit of £2.8m, with a remit to turn its fortunes around. By a combination of artistic excellence and quiet husbandry, including a year-long Complete Works of Shakespeare Festival (begun in April 2006 and which involved other companies as well as the RSC) plus a financiallly successful London season at the Novello Theatre in 2006, Boyd slowly rebuilt the company's fortunes and reputation.

In 2007 he launched the long-awaited Stratford theatre redevelopments, including construction of the temporary Courtyard Theatre while work was in progress, designed to house his RSC Histories cycle before its transfer to the Roundhouse in London in 2008. [RSC The Histories cycle [] ] Talking of these achievements with typical modesty he told the Evening Standard in December 2007 ('The Man Who Remade the RSC'): “There was a bit of gardening to do, but we are now beginning to show signs of walking the walk.” [] .

The RSC is the sole British member theatre of the Union of the Theatres of Europe. The RSC also acquired the rights to the Shakespeare schools festival, which tries to get young actors into Shakespeare as early as possible.

Artistic directors

* Peter Hall (1960–1968)
* Trevor Nunn (1968–1978)
* Trevor Nunn and Terry Hands (1978–1986)
* Terry Hands (1986–1991)
* Adrian Noble (1991–2003)
* Michael Boyd (2003- )


In Stratford, the RSC runs four theatres:

* The Courtyard Theatre, a temporary 1,000-seat theatre with a thrust stage
* The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, a large proscenium arch theatre (closed for redevelopment - architects Bennetts Associates [] ).
* The Swan Theatre, an indoor version of an Elizabethan theatre (temporarily closed)
* The Other Place, a small black box theatre (temporarily closed).

The company's London presence has included tenancies of the Aldwych Theatre, The Place in Duke's Road, Euston, the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden, the Barbican Theatre and The Pit in the City of London; and seasons at The Mermaid Theatre. the Almeida Theatre (1988 and 1989), the Roundhouse in Camden, the Young Vic, the Playhouse Theatre, the Novello Theatre and the Gielgud Theatre.

In Stratford the RSC currently performs in the Courtyard Theatre, opened in July 2006, designed by Ian Ritchie Architects and designers Charcoal Blue. [,,2003968,00.html] . As a working prototype for the new auditorium of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre it has a thrust stage and stacked tiered seating on three sides for 1,000 people.

During the winter months, Stratford-upon-Avon's Civic Hall on Rother Street will provide the RSC with a temporary second theatre [] .

The Courtyard will be the Company's main performance space whilst the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is closed for transformation. But when the development is complete in 2010 the Courtyard will be dismantled and The Other Place will then re-open as the RSC's studio theatre.

As part of this project the 432-seat Swan Theatre has also closed temporarily and will eventually share foyer space with the re-vamped RST.

For more information visit the RSC website [] . See also Simon Trowbridge's "A Dictionary of the RSC: The New RST — A Disaster in the Making?" [] .

Key productions

* "King Lear" directed by Peter Brook with Paul Scofield as Lear (1962)
* "The Wars of the Roses", adaptation of the "Henry VI" and "Richard III" plays, directed by Sir Peter Hall 1963-64 with Ian Holm, Peggy Ashcroft and David Warner
* "Marat/Sade" by Peter Weiss directed by Peter Brook (1964)
* "The Homecoming" by Harold Pinter, world premiere directed by Peter Hall (June 1965)
* "Staircase" with Paul Scofield and Patrick Magee (1966)
* "Hamlet" directed by Peter Hall with David Warner in the title-role (1965)
* "A Midsummer Night's Dream", directed by Peter Brook (1970)
* "Old Times" by Harold Pinter directed by Peter Hall (1971)
* "Julius Caesar" directed by Trevor Nunn (1973)
* Antony and Cleopatra directed by Trevor Nunn starring Janet Suzman (1973)
* "Richard II", directed by John Barton, starring Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco, alternating the roles of Richard and Bolingbroke (1973-74)
* "Travesties" by Tom Stoppard, starring John Wood, world premiere directed by Peter Wood (June 1974)
* "The Marrying of Ann Leete" by Harley Granville Barker, starring Mia Farrow, directed by David Jones (September 1975)
* "Hamlet", starring Sir Ben Kingsley, directed by Buzz Goodbody (1976)
* "Romeo and Juliet", starring Ian McKellen and Francesca Annis, directed by Trevor Nunn (March 1976)
* "Much Ado About Nothing", starring Judi Dench and Donald Sinden, directed by John Barton (April 1976)
* "The Iceman Cometh" by Eugene O'Neill, with Alan Tllvern taking over the role of Hickey from the "indisposed" Ian Holm, directed by Howard Davies (May 1976)
* "The Comedy of Errors" in a musical version by Trevor Nunn and Guy Woolfenden (September 1976)
* "Wild Oats" by John O'Keeffe, starring Alan Howard and Jeremy Irons, directed by Clifford Williams (December 1976)
* "Macbeth", directed by Trevor Nunn starring Judi Dench and Ian McKellen (1976-1977)
* "Privates on Parade" by Peter Nichols, world premiere directed by Michael Blakemore (February 1977)
* "Destiny" by David Edgar, world premiere directed by Ron Daniels (May 1977)
* "The Greeks" directed and adapted from Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles by John Barton (1980)
* "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby" adapted for the stage by David Edgar, world premiere directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird (1980)
* "Much Ado About Nothing" directed by Terry Hands starring Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack
* "Richard III", directed by Bill Alexander starring Sir Antony Sher (1984)
* "Les Misérables" by Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Alain Boublil directed by Trevor Nunn (1985)
* "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" by Christopher Hampton starring Alan Rickman, Lindsay Duncan, and Juliet Stevenson, world premiere directed by Howard Davies (1985)
* "Titus Andronicus" directed by Deborah Warner starring Brian Cox (1988)
* "The Plantagenets" adaptation of the "Henry VI" and "Richard III" plays, directed by Adrian Noble, starring Anton Lesser as "Richard III", Ralph Fiennes as "Henry VI" and David Waller as "Duke of Gloucester" (1988)
* "Othello" directed by Trevor Nunn with Willard White as Othello and Ian McKellen as Iago (1989)
* "Hamlet" directed by Adrian Noble starring Kenneth Branagh (1992)
* "Coriolanus" directed by David Thacker starring Toby Stephens (1994)
* "" (2000), a season of all Shakespeare's sequential history plays
* "Hamlet" directed by Michael Boyd starring Toby Stephens (2004)
* "The Crucible" by Arthur Miller directed by Dominic Cooke (2006)
* "Pericles" directed by Dominic Cooke (2006)
* Repertory performances of "King Lear" [] and "The Seagull" [] starring Ian McKellen and Frances Barber, directed by Trevor Nunn (2007)
* "The Histories at the Roundhouse" (2008) [] [,,2266431,00.html]
* "Hamlet" directed by Gregory Doran, with David Tennant as Hamlet and Patrick Stewart as Claudius (2008) []

Notable actors past and present

The following notable actors have appeared in RSC productions and at Stratford.
* F. Murray Abraham
* Joss Ackland
* Roger Allam
* Miles Anderson
* Harry Andrews
* Francesca Annis
* Richard Armitage
* Alun Armstrong
* Peggy Ashcroft
* Eileen Atkins
* Alan Bates
* Simon Russell Beale
* Sean Bean
* Nicholas Bell
* Paul Bettany
* Colin Blakely
* Brian Blessed
* Samantha Bond
* Kenneth Branagh
* Brenda Bruce
* Richard Burton
* Simon Callow
* Cheryl Campbell
* James Chalmers
* Ian Charleson
* Tony Church
* Shelley Conn
* Brian Cox
* Cyril Cusack
* Niamh Cusack
* Sinead Cusack
* Henry Ian Cusick
* Tim Curry
* Timothy Dalton
* Charles Dance
* Daniel Day-Lewis
* Judi Dench
* Simon Dormandy
* Roy Dotrice
* Amanda Drew
* Lindsay Duncan
* Mia Farrow
* Peter Egan
* Jennifer Ehle
* Ralph Fiennes
* Joseph Fiennes
* Emma Fielding
* Colin Firth
* Susan Fleetwood
* Oliver Ford Davies
* Philip Franks
* Mariah Gale
* Michael Gambon
* Romola Garai
* William Gaunt
* Colin George
* John Gielgud
* Iain Glen
* Julian Glover
* Patrick Godfrey
* Louise Gold
* Michelle Gomez
* Michael Goodliffe
* Henry Goodman
* Nickolas Grace
* Richard Griffiths
* Jack Gwillim
* Mike Gwilym
* Nigel Hawthorne
* Ciarán Hinds
* Dustin Hoffman
* Ian Holm
* Michael Hordern
* Jane Horrocks
* Will Houston
* Alan Howard
* Gareth Hunt
* Geoffrey Hutchings
* Barrie Ingham
* Jeremy Irons
* Glenda Jackson
* Derek Jacobi
* Emrys James
* Tony Jay
* Michael Jayston
* Barbara Jefford
* Alex Jennings
* Richard Johnson
* Griffith Jones
* Alexis Kanner
* Charles Kay
* Geoffrey Keen
* Ben Kingsley
* Alex Kingston
* Michael Kitchen
* Jane Lapotaire
* Jude Law
* Josie Lawrence
* Vivien Leigh
* Barbara Leigh-Hunt
* Anton Lesser
* Damian Lewis
* John Lithgow
* Cherie Lunghi
* Patti LuPone
* Alec McCowen
* Sylvester McCoy
* Ian McDiarmid
* Ian McKellen
* Leo McKern
* Art Malik
* Daniel Massey
* Helen Mirren
* Julian Morris
* Carey Mulligan
* Eve Myles
* John Nettles
* Lord Laurence Olivier
* Peter O'Toole
* David Oyelowo
* Richard Pasco
* Trevor Peacock
* Bob Peck
* Michael Pennington
* Edward Petherbridge
* Sian Phillips
* Ronald Pickup
* Tim Pigott-Smith
* Eric Porter
* Mike Pratt
* Jonathan Pryce
* Hugh Quarshie
* Anthony Quayle
* Diana Quick
* Michael Redgrave
* Vanessa Redgrave
* Siobhan Redmond
* Roger Rees
* Ian Richardson
* Miles Richardson
* Joely Richardson
* Ralph Richardson
* Alan Rickman
* Diana Rigg
* David Rintoul
* Linus Roache
* Norman Rodway
* Paul Rogers
* Clifford Rose
* Mark Rylance
* Paul Scofield
* Fiona Shaw
* Sebastian Shaw
* Antony Sher
* John Shrapnel
* Donald Sinden
* Timothy Spall
* Elizabeth Spriggs
* Robert Stephens
* Toby Stephens
* Juliet Stevenson
* Patrick Stewart
* Imogen Stubbs
* David Suchet
* Janet Suzman
* Tilda Swinton
* David Tennant
* Ellen Terry
* John Thaw
* Gareth Thomas
* David Threlfall
* Frances de la Tour
* Herbert Beerbohm Tree
* Dorothy Tutin
* Margaret Tyzack
* Harriet Walter
* Derek Waring
* David Warner
* Zoë Wanamaker
* Dennis Waterman
* Ruby Wax
* Samuel West
* Michael Williams
* Nicol Williamson
* Penelope Wilton
* John Wood
* John Woodvine
* Irene Worth
* Mary Ure
* Susannah York



*Addenbrooke, David: "The Royal Shakespeare Company: The Peter Hall Years", William Kimber (1974) ISBN 071830103X
*Beauman, Sally: "The Royal Shakespeare Company: A History of Ten Decades", Oxford University Press (1982) ISBN 0192122096
*Hall, Peter: "Making an Exhibition of Myself: The Autobiography of Peter Hall", Sinclair-Stevenson (1993) ISBN 1856191656
*Pringle, Marian: "The Theatres of Stratford-upon-Avon 1875 – 1992: An Architectural History", Stratford upon Avon Society (1994) ISBN 0-9514178-1-9
*Theatre Record and its annual Indexes
*RSC programme notes (including those for "Richard II" at the Courtyard, August 2007)

External links

* [ Royal Shakespeare Company Website]
* [ Royal Shakespeare Company - Exploring Shakespeare]
* [ RSC Performance Database]
* [ A Dictionary of the RSC by Simon Trowbridge]
* [ Some views of the Old and New Theatres in Stratford in Old Postcards]
* [ The Stratford Guide. A tourist guide to the beautiful Warwickshire town of Stratford-upon-Avon]
* [ Shakespeare Schools Festival]
* [ Your Icons ] Highlights from the Royal Shakespeare Company's collection

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