From King Lear to a launchpad

What does the Royal Shakespeare Company do? A silly question, you might think – after all, there’s a clue in the name. But the company doesn’t only mount plays by Shakespeare. In the 50 years since the RSC was launched, it has staged some 300 new plays – among them six works by Harold Pinter (including the premiere of The Homecoming in 1965) and dramas by Edward Albee, Edward Bond, Caryl Churchill, David Edgar, Wole Soyinka and Tom Stoppard. It also commissioned Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, which premiered in June 1980 and played in London’s West End for more than two years.

If you find that volume of work surprising, you are in good company. “I think the RSC hasn’t been very good at putting that strand in the shop window,” says Jeanie O’Hare, the RSC’s dramaturg, who was recruited in 2005 by artistic director Michael Boyd to give a boost to the new writing programme. “But the company has always done new work, from the moment it was set up by Peter Hall in 1961. When it is working at its best, that’s what’s happening: classics and contemporary work are rubbing up against each other.”

To celebrate the RSC’s half-centenary this year, O’Hare is helping to steer seven new plays on to stage and to revive several big successes (Pinter’s The Homecoming, Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade and Dunsinane by David Greig).

All very fine, but does the RSC need to do new work? Shakespeare and his contemporaries did leave a pretty healthy body of drama. Moreover, there are dozens of theatre companies in the UK that specialise in new writing. What can the RSC offer that is different?

The answer, says O’Hare, is scale. New writing is often produced in studio theatres, whose small scale restricts the cast size and prompts writers to adopt an intimate voice. She and Boyd made a conscious decision to encourage contemporary playwrights to think big: to reach towards Shakespeare in terms of themes, scope and number of characters. They have sought out “that bracket of writers in their thirties and forties who are ready to write big, mature work”.

Some plays have been specific responses to Shakespeare texts, such as Rona Munro’s The Indian Boy (which was inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Others have tackled big themes such as war (Days of Significance by Roy Williams) and peace (Greig’s Dunsinane). This year’s subjects include the space race, the writing of the King James Bible and the nature of silence.

There are no house rules, however, that demand blockbuster dramas with battles, dynastic struggles and metaphysical speculation. Roxana Silbert, who is directing the space race play Little Eagles, suggests that the effect is more subliminal. And while Silbert acknowledges that “you don’t have to have 15 people on stage to write a play of magnitude”, she suggests that the size of the RSC ensemble can offer an enticing challenge to a playwright’s technique.

“It takes tremendous skill to organise lots of people on stage,” she observes. “To give every character a through line, so that you understand their story and how their story affects the whole.”

Being in the company of Shakespeare, who wrote about kings and commoners, also prompts some writers to find the nerve to write about world leaders. Both Greig’s Dunsinane and Munro’s Little Eagles depict leaders. That, says Silbert, is striking in contemporary work.

“A lot of the new plays I’ve done have been about the unheard voice: the people who don’t get a chance to be heard. That was very much the ethos of the playwriting that came out from the postwar period. But these characters are leaders – that’s very unusual in a new play.”

Silbert admits, however, that the RSC endorsement can be both inspiring and daunting for writers.

“If you do a new play at the Bush Theatre or the Royal Court, you’re not judged against Shakespeare. At the RSC there is this towering presence of possibly the world’s greatest writer looking down at you and going, ‘Well, what can you do then, mate?’”

One writer who finds herself in that position is Munro. Her Little Eagles focuses on Sergei Korolyov, visionary chief designer of the Soviet space programme. He was an extraordinary man who survived imprisonment in a Siberian labour camp and whose ingenuity lay behind Yuri Gagarin’s successful mission 50 years ago this week.

Commissioned to write a contemporary history play, Munro seized on the task with relish. Little Eagles starts in a Gulag prison in 1938, rolls forward to 1966, embraces rocket science, flight, the cold war, the Faustian drive of mankind to reach beyond the possible, and includes a fistful of famous names, including Gagarin, Brezhnev, Khrushchev and Stalin. She concedes that dramatising real leaders does take some nerve: “You just have to take a deep breath. And in that respect it was helpful writing for the RSC, because you look at the Shakespeare plays and say: ‘Well, he didn’t know Henry V.’”

She adds that writing for the RSC ensemble helps. Because the actors have spent months portraying big characters, such as Julius Caesar and King Lear, they are at ease with taking on the parts of world leaders and their gargantuan egos. They are also accustomed to a certain level of theatricality and rhetoric.

“The RSC is one of the few places where you can contemplate writing on that scale. Usually you’re writing for a wee studio space. You can’t really have lines that are going to bounce off the back wall when the back wall’s only going to be 10ft away. And knowing that you’re dealing with actors who are used to inhabiting big characters and delivering big lines encourages you to think about writing them.

“It’s very liberating to think bigger,” she says. “And I think audiences like it. If you want small-scale, detailed naturalism, television is always going to do it better. The thing that theatre can do, in a small or big space, is give you an experience that’s larger than life.”

Epic theatre does seem to be on the increase – and not just at the RSC. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre also commissions bold contemporary work, while the National Theatre has recently staged Her Naked Skin (Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s ambitious work about suffragettes) and Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London. Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem and Lucy Prebble’s Enron impressed audiences with their ambitious scale, and the National Theatre of Scotland has had an international success with Black Watch.

O’Hare points out that the RSC can help writers to achieve the sort of stagecraft that can deliver big moments and sustain narrative. She works closely with them to solve structural difficulties. Playwrights can take part in workshops on rhetoric or violence or a host of other themes, and attend rehearsals for Shakespeare productions – a chance to watch a play take shape without the anxiety that their presence can bring to a rehearsal room when the play being rehearsed is their own.

But despite all this support and advice, some of the RSC’s new work has floundered. Adriano Shaplin’s hefty The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes, for example, about the founding of the Royal Society, proved long, confusing and indigestible. O’Hare admits that bad experiences with new work can be bruising for both audiences and playwrights.

“Some writers have really reached for it and it has not quite come off, but I think we do have to take those risks. Writers can’t learn unless you can let them off the leash. Adriano’s play was too stuffed with ideas, and I think that’s a forgivable failing. He is a very experimental writer and he hasn’t stopped experimenting. He is under commission to us for another play. So we are keeping faith in him as a writer.”

Given how closely O’Hare works with contemporary writers, I wonder whether she would like to have got Shakespeare into the office. For all his brilliance, he was certainly guilty of dodgy geography, knotty syntax and slabs of exposition. Does she think the Bard could have benefited from a dramaturg occasionally?

“I do, yes,” she says, laughing. “We are much more forgiving of Shakespeare’s bad dramaturgy than we are of any living writer.”

‘Little Eagles’ by Rona Munro, Hampstead Theatre, London, until May 7

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