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First Wicket Down

RSC Yearbook, 1978

After appearing as Mirabell in “The Way of the World” at the Aldwych in January, Michael Pennington moved to Stratford for the new season, and here looks back over a year which, for him, was notable for performances as the Duke in “Measure for Measure”, Berowne in “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and the title role in “Hippolytus”.

Going in to bat third can be a mixed blessing; and no doubt Sir Frank Benson, Stratford’s great cricketing actor-manager, would have had some advice to offer me as a rejoined the RSC last year just after “The Tempest” and “The Taming of the Shrew” had opened the season. Among other things, he would surely have pointed out that the No. 3 depends on the openers to take the shine off the ball first; and I would have had to answer him that that was an unenviable task, for opening at Stratford can sometimes be no fun at all.

A new company will hardly know itself; winter may be lingering on in all those picturesque cottages; and on occasion the critics have been known to be feeling the cold as well. When I was here last, in 1976, a production of “Romeo and Juliet” opened the season to a generally vile reception; the same show, improved by practice but essentially unaltered, was subsequently greeted in London as something like definitive.

As I went in this time, reflectively prodding the wicket, it was indeed finally borne in on me how few if us from the class of ’76 were together again. It seemed a shame, for it had been a good time; but transience it at the heart of our affairs, and this was to be a brand new innings. Returning from a spring holiday, I was bringing to “Measure for Measure” rehearsals an unpopular Italian tan and perhaps some lingering sense of Renaissance counterpoint: the Doge’s Palace, I had noted, abuts onto the Bridge of Sighs, though I doubt whether any Venetian prince slipped away to visit his own prisons like Shakespeare’s Duke of Vienna.

In this play high liberal tolerance gives way to a new puritanism which in turn yields to the few small truths men can be reasonably sure of; thus Shakespeare exposes the folly of exclusive philosophies and the limits of self-knowledge. So perhaps it was to be expected in rehearsal the play seemed to continually to change its meaning (and continues to do so); fitting too, perhaps, that at the last moment we encountered technical problems that broke our brains at the time but forced us to use our set in better ways. The coincidence whereby the electrics board broke down on opening night – just as it had at the opening of “The Tempest” – and would offer only a continuous strobe effect, was, I should say, one surprise too many.

As if in response to these alarums, the RSC’s new administrative structure was announced the following day. But on the factory-floor life went on pretty much as before, as everyone was agreed it should. Through a dreary summer by far the most genial place to be was the “Love’s Labour’s Lost” set, where it was possible to forget the stinging rain and the swollen river for the sake of a comedy that Shakespeare wrote just in time, before sour experience, like that of his Princess of France, could tip his wings.

The opening of “Antony and Cleopatra” in October passed me by, as I had once again removed to a strategic post abroad; with another unpopular tan gained in the name of research I came back to the severities of “Hippolytus”. The Other Place is an irresistible performing place; and its singular success sometimes leads to a debate on the relative merits of Stratford’s two auditoria. This is a shame, since there is really no need to decide on such a thing. Without a doubt actors who are wearied by the necessary amplitudes of the main house can be rejuvenated by the detail and accuracy demanded by The Other Place; the continuation whereby they sometimes return to the big stage and make the same rigorous methods effective there is less often remarked.

It does happen, though; and occasions in the RST when an audience is compelled against all the odds to note the grain of an actor’s skin, a quarter tone in his voice, or some minute shift of attention, are thrilling indeed. So too are the times when the really big effect is pulled off in the studio; and I suppose when we are equally comfortable either way, every way, the debate will finally be closed. As it is, a Stratford season nowadays feels incomplete without the change.

The theatre year would be incomplete too, it seems, without the critical round-up. Is not this, too, a year book? Since the chronicle of our times must be kept in this way, 1978 ended in the usual flurry of awards and retrospectives. At this time there seems to be some sort of critical responsibility to assess the exact state of play between the RSC and the National, as if, together with Prospect, the companies were engaged in some endless steeple-chase. Performances are compared, the quota of new plays considered, delight and disappointment measured; and it must be said that all of this is unavoidably based on the old truism that theatre history is largely a history of opening nights.

I know that this is a circumstance that pleases the writers hardly more than the written-about, and indeed the maxim is increasingly losing its force; nevertheless it still underpins the witness that is borne at the year’s end. In fact, the theatre shows again and again that remarkable things happen in unremarkable places, and that even in remarkable places you may miss something if you are looking in the wrong direction.

A complementary cheer therefore for every second night that was twice as good as the first; for every understudy who really pulled it off; and for every performance that flourished in the shadow of something else. By some extension of the same thought, it is good to know as we prepare for a third visit to the north-east that a new company is digging itself in at the University Theatre in Newcastle. Perhaps our gaudy caravan will not be so urgently needed there from now on; and that will be exactly as it should be.

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