Updated: Aug 15, 2019
Recent productions at the RSC, are in many ways using the good reputation of the company and the theatre to get away with completely ignoring the interests and wants of a modern audience. The production teams seem to be very aware that because they are part of 'The RSC', they will have no trouble in getting an audience and that people will always say that they enjoy the show (largely so that they aren't ridiculed for not understanding the 'nuance and depth in the pure originality of the directorial approach').
Most people, however, will enjoy a show no matter how exciting it is, so long as it ticks a very particular and arguably insignificant list of boxes. The first of these boxes is the very fact that it's being put on by the 'Royal Shakespeare Company' in Stratford-Upon-Avon. There is a narrative, cast by certain theatrical circles, that there is some special significance in seeing one of Shakespeare's plays in his birth-town. Although this may hold a small wisp of truth, it is far from people's minds when watching one of his plays. When imagining Henry V's army storm across the battle of Agincourt, one seldom starts to reminisce about a young William Shakespeare, eating his lunch on the banks of the Avon, feeding a swan a loaf of bread while his mother calls him in for his supper. Another box, eagerly ticked by many, is that a 'distinguished' actor be a part of the production. In March, I saw Christopher Ecclestone deliver his 'Macbeth'. It wasn't a complete failure, and kudos has to be given to the gravitas of the man; but one would expect a little more magic from a member of a company dedicated to the interpretation and production of some of the best plays ever written. A big problem with Ecclestone's character was that he just doesn't look, or feel, like a king. It starts well, when he is a mere valiant soldier, cruising the royal after-party for a foothold into the chatrooms of the great and powerful. However, one could almost laugh at the contrast in 'manhood' between the wannabe king and Raphael Sowole's 'Banquo'. I suspect that certain casting decisions may have been made slightly above the head of the director, and our man Christopher was called in to bring in a reliable stream of ticket sales, rather than to electrify and re-ignite the role of the Scottish king. Another telling sign that style is being valued over substance, is that a fortune has been spent on the 'look' and 'feel' of the piece. The RSC sure do love a fast-paced, edgy trailer that will appeal to the lacking attention spans of the younger generation. Not only are the editors on cocaine when they cut together their YouTube trailers, but these videos also love to show off the expenses paid towards elaborate costume ideas and the new technical feats that the director has, through pure genius, incorporated into the very mechanical workings of the production.
This 'style' that the RSC seem to be so good at producing, is not in itself something to complain about. It certainly adds to the aesthetics of the theatrical experience and, when marketed correctly, really can help to draw in new and diverse audiences to classical theatre. But it isn't enough to draw in a group of youngsters just once. They need to be so electrified and invigorated by their experience, that not only do they come back time and again, but are inspired to get involved in theatrical productions of their own. In a world of seemingly unlimited choice, where YouTube stars are born into fortune and fame overnight, theatre needs to be constantly reproducing a positive name for itself in order to create art that is relevant and powerful. It is easy with new writing to connect to a modern audience because the writer is more than likely writing about current affairs and is tuned in to the zeitgeist of our time. It is also vital that new work gets good reviews because it is the first, and possibly the last time anyone is going to hear that story for a while, so the pressure is on to make it spectacular. Here lies the problem that I have found on every occasion I have seen a show at the RSC. There is a deep-rooted laziness in the productions being put on. They do not need to appeal to audiences at all because so long as they call themselves 'The RSC' and put on well known plays with a familiar aesthetic then a reliable demographic of people will continue to line to pockets of theatre producers.
The late great Sir Peter Hall, founder of the RSC, once predicted that, with the rise of television media, theatre will continue to become more and more exclusive and elitist. We have a responsibility to stop this from being the case. Shakespearean theatre, at its core, are stories told about people, by people, for people, and we must never lose this essence.