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Tough Company

The Independent, 17th February 1988

Actor Michael Pennington discusses the troubled history of the ESC’s ‘The Wars of the Roses’ tour

On the last night of the English Shakespeare Company’s ‘Henry V’ in Toronto last June, the audience were treated to a particularly bewildering curtain call. Paddy O’Connell hurtled on to stage dressed not in his role as Captain Gower, but as Richard III – the image of Olivier to the life. A very theatrical joke, no doubt, but for once its incestuousness seemed all right.

The audience were no more baffled by this apparition than they had been by the rest of our work over the preceding weeks, and for our baptismal company (about to be disbanded after a year on tour) it was a generous benediction. Paddy  himself was going to stay at home next year, but the ESC’s threatened Megaplan for 1987-8-9 had just been confirmed – namely, to add ‘Richard II’, ‘Henry VI’ and ‘Richard III’ to our existing ‘Henrys’, and thus to offer for the first time in 20 years the full Wars of the Roses sequence – not only in the UK, but to audiences as diverse as Tokyo, Chicago, Berlin and Hong Kong.

It all seemed quite easy then. The ESC’s first season had sold out all over the place, and the ovation that we got in Toronto (only slackening a little at Paddy’s bewildering appearance) had become a regular event wherever we went. Internally, we seemed to have put a spirit of company playing back into the Shakespeare business, Michael Bogdanov and I had fulfilled a long-standing ambition, and John Woodvine, for example, had created the Falstaff of a lifetime.

Merry meetings with the Arts Council had reassured us of the requested third of the money we needed for the Megaplan, our backers the Mirvishes were conspicuously loyal to us and the Allied Irish Bank almost certainly in as well. We had enthusiastic invitations from many a foreign festival and touring dates set up in the UK. The idea was to come back to London, gradually unwind and look forward to 1st September.

Not so fast. In July the Arts Council took another look and threatened to withdraw – and then relented. Plymouth theatre Royal, having launched us last year and undertaken to do so again, extended its production of ‘South Pacific’ and cancelled us, leaving us with nowhere to open. Forty-nine days to go. Other touring dates, who in earlier phone calls had taken our £35,000 a week costs on the chin, all declared in the same morning that £20,000 was all they could afford. So we faced a possible shortfall of £150,000 over the ten-week UK tour. Thirty-five days to go.

We rapidly nailed down some more profitable foreign dates later on to underwrite the loss. This balances the books but left us with horrendous cashflow problems in the interim. We turned to our Board for support: two of them immediately resigned. We were reminded of the Director’s Responsibility Act which makes the Directors of a company potentially liable for its debts. Our gloomy reveries were punctured by calls from our actors, understandably alarmed by our silence. What the hell was happening? Were the offers confirmed or not?

Fortunately, we have a Chairman, David Kay, who remains imperturbable in the face of siege. We also have the unflinching support from the Allied Irish Bank – in theory, the most hard-nosed of our backers. Thanks largely to the ingenuity of these parties, the Megaplan was re-presented and eased through what remained of our Board on 10th August (22 days to go). We finished editing ‘Henry VI’, rebooked everyone and slunk into rehearsal on 8th September – just one week late.

At a moment of extreme fatigue, it had taken more energy to save the second project than it had to set the Company up in the first place. Instead of getting on terms with the plays, we had been bent over telephones. With our critical éclat at a height, we could feel a certain pride – some brand new classical stars in the making, young audiences hallooing - yet at the same time worry that in Britain in 1988 we might already be a dinosaur, a laughably unprofitable mission of the kind that really went out with Wolfit. With a complicated gleam in the eye we greeted our new company.

Rehearsals cure everything. To see that Falstaff can be played in an infinity of ways, or watch an actor ease himself intuitively into the monologues of Richard III – or perhaps, most of all, to see and edited version of ‘Henry VI’ emerge as a major new Shakespearean play: these are discoveries that put energy through your legs even when they’re ready to buckle. Rehearsals even help to cure the devastating loss of John Price, who died at the end of last year; because to continue to swim in the current of work John loved so much begins to appease the unbelievable thought that we’ll not see him come loping through the door of this rehearsal room again.

We duly opened in Bath on 8th December, God only knows how. For ‘Richard II’, the Georgian beauty of the Theatre Royal met the Regency world acted out on the stage in a pleasing continuum. The ‘Henrys’ were secure, new actors in majors parts unbelievably assured. Our new trilogy ‘Henry VI – Henry VII - Richard III’ gets a reception we last heard in Toronto. The cost is high. The theatre is, of course, a beauty, but wing space is negligible and seven Shakespeares is quite a wingspan.

As we break up for Christmas, everyone is elated at having opened seven plays in nine days and surprised at how easy it has seemed: but three weeks later when we meet at Heathrow it becomes clear that a kind of emotional influenza has spoiled most people’s Christmas and some have hardly got out of bed. Now we are to fly 15 hours eastward to the Hong Kong Festival and open 48 hours later. It doesn’t matter on such a flight if we drink only water or put our feet in paper bags – we’re still going to feel terrible at the moment we open.

All the same, it’s delightful. Hong Kong may be a sulphurous and mercantile town, and the Chinese may be angry with us, but it can look paradoxically beautiful on a mild January evening. Our heads are spinning, but the shows have opened in style. It is good to see a fair number of Chinese in the house and to hear that they can follow the story in our version even without the language. Perhaps our manner – dressing by character rather than chronology and feeling free to let ten years pass with a flick of the wrist – is not so far from that of the Chinese opera, which emerged in Shakespeare’s own time. There, I always knew we were international.

In fact, international is what we may have to be more and more, since I doubt we shall be able to tour in England in this way for very much longer. Already, having started up expressly to tour in England, we are spending exactly half of the next two years abroad to survive. Yet I know we have made and renewed an audience, and have some small stake in the cultural future that otherwise looks so bleak for young people. Out of the exhilaration of discovering this audience and pessimism at our capacity to go on serving it, a dual vision has developed. What’s to be done? Answers on a postcard, please. We can’t promise not to steam off the stamps.

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