Home. Introduction. News. Career. One Man shows. Books. Reviews. Articles. Contact.

My beautiful carbuncle

Actors are said to hate the 'hideous' Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Rubbish, says Michael Pennington, who has appeared there since the 1960s

Michael Pennington
Wednesday January 16, 2002
The Guardian

So the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon has been "long unloved by actors and audiences" (the Guardian, January 9). I think not. We need to hear more from those audiences, but who in the profession hates the RST? And what really happened when the Royal Shakespeare Company board met the Commons select committee last week to discuss pulling the theatre down and building a new one? Depending on which report you read, it was either reproached for seeking £100m for such an "elitist" plan or urged to go ahead and destroy the "hideous carbuncle" for its own good. It can hardly do one without the other.

It is a queasy business watching the company, in its desire to change its home, having to make common cause with those who have no particular interest in the matter. The MP who led the attack had visited the theatre once in his life and sat in the gods. Across the floor, the Tory member for Bromsgrove, while agreeing, improbably thought there were people in Stratford who didn't know the theatre existed.

Some actors dislike the RST, but many of us have gone back time and again to a stage on which we feel we have done our best work. There is something wrong with most theatres: at the Criterion in London you can hear the tube from the back of the stalls; up the road at the Aldwych it is hard to see the height of the stage as the lip of the circle is low. The RST is a bit high, and thus a challenge - but it was always something to aspire to.

I have spent three sections of my life there. As a beginner in the mid-1960s, I marvelled to see Peggy Ashcroft and Ian Holm (among others) working with the subtlety you would associate with film but sending the meaning flying to the back of the theatre. This is the point, I thought; perhaps I can do the same one day. I went back in the mid-1970s, when Alan Howard was taking the RST by storm in Shakespeare's Histories. In a natural development, the intimate work done in The Other Place was beginning to affect the way we dealt with the classics in the main house. When I left five years later, after Hamlet, I knew that this theatre was the ideal place for an actor to develop the mixture of delicacy and muscle, speed and weight, that audiences need from these plays.

I have gone this way and that with Shakespeare, but whatever I am has much to do with years of working this "carbuncle". When I went back in 1999 for Timon of Athens, I finally noticed something I had always thought arcane: a sense of supporting history, as in those special rooms where you can faintly hear the voices of the past, in this case my own among them. For us as for its audiences, including the young ones, this theatre is not quite like others, just as the plays are not.

By 1999 the relationship between the stage and the house was very good, thanks to modifications that had been made over the years. These have continued, at some cost. But now despair has set in, and the RSC wants the building down. At this point the argument overheats. A scandalised spokesman says that the stage must be tilted so that everyone can see. Well, yes: it's called a rake, and theatres have always been built with one, as a means of creating better visibility. It is also said that only a third of the seats have good sightlines. Not at all - if that were so, audiences would have voted with their feet long ago, and the company would be out of business.

The RSC also regrets that on Sundays the town is full of visitors but its doors are locked. So why not open them? A repertory theatre is perfect for establishing seven-days-a-week playing (as Peter Hall did at the Old Vic in 1997), if only because not all the actors are in every play, so everybody gets a night off some time. I know about the cost, but my guess is it would be rewarded.

The rest is fixable detail. It is regrettable that customers sometimes have to queue for the loos for most of the interval (though at least that brings the RST into line with most West End theatres). But since there is a limit to how much should be spent on shortening the queue, why not simply build some more?

The RSC rightly wants to be ideas-led not buildings-led. But the work of Adrian Noble, and of his colleagues and predecessors, has always been ideas-led. How would it have succeeded otherwise? Nothing could be more dangerous than to imagine that by pulling down a proven theatre and building a "theatre village" certain magical properties will automatically flow: a new demotic, new accessibility, a new forum for questions of race, gender and class. Gerald Kaufman, who chaired the Commons select committee, thinks the RSC already demonstrates those things, so where does that leave the argument?

The truth is something we all know, and is so simple as to be trite. If the work is good enough to engage a new audience, the bricks and mortar hardly matter; what's necessary is feasible ticket prices and a competent press campaign. However, if Romeo and Juliet fails to touch the heart, no amount of backstage visits to see the flying system and watch the armour being hammered (all of which can now be done) is going to make people interested. Are the seats going to be cheaper in the village? Why is the work bound to be better for it?

This building has served this great company for 70 years. Think of the numbers that have flowed into the despised place, not all of them "boring rich old fogeys"; think of the performances that have ignited them. I happen to believe there is nothing wrong with the theatre that matters: it is a Grade II listed building with, I have always thought, a welcoming atmosphere.

Meanwhile the rhetoric on both sides is developing a meretricious edge. Apart from Mark Rylance's excellent comments in a letter to the Guardian on January 12, not much has been heard from the profession, while objectors are generally described, rudely, as "a minority of conservationists and local people". Not so. I know for a fact there is a large groundswell of opinion that for some reason is not being heard. Let's be having you.

Return to Introduction