The RSC at 60: the glorious past and vital future of a theatrical revolution

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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.”

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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”.

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