There’s a bit of a revolution going on at the RSC.
Those are words I never thought I’d write.
I use that qualifier “bit of” for a reason, because this is not a whole-scale, violent insurgency. Erica Whyman’s Midsummer Mischief season is a lot more subtle than that. But for the first time in my RSC-going experience, it feels like there’s a counter to the mainstage fare in Stratford, working in tandem with and in opposition to the prevailing ideology.
First, a bit more context. A few months ago, I was asked if I’d like to be ‘embedded’ – for want of a better word – in a season of new work the RSC’s Deputy Artistic Director, Erica Whyman, was creating in a twenty-first century version of The Other Place (which has for the last eight years been the Courtyard Theatre, birthplace of Michael Boyd’s Histories and Matilda, The Musical). I said yes mainly so I could watch this process first-hand, to have the position of a ‘privileged audience member’ and consider its importance in the output of the RSC. Thus, over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be penning a number of pieces on various aspects of this season and the workings behind it in the hope of understanding its aims and ideas. I’ve already spent a couple of days in Stratford in the rehearsal room, and will be watching the whole season unfold before press night.
Now, being the geek that I am, The Other Place has always held a semi-mythical status in my cultural imagination. Having first visited the RSC to watch a show in 2008, I was never fortunate enough to see any of the new work created in the tin hut down the road from the main theatre complex, and so have only heard tell of its legacy secondhand. To that extent, it’s radical potential has always felt missing from the company’s output in the years I’ve been going to Stratford, and the rejuvenation it’s currently seeing as both a literal and imaginary space is long overdue.
Erica Whyman’s intentions for the season are multiple and far-reaching, and go beyond the content of the plays themselves. First, this is an attempt to revitalise a strand of new, radical work at the RSC which has been dormant for the the last few years. Yes, the company has developed and produced new work, but these have often been adaptations rather than completely unique stories, trading off established narratives instead of creating them afresh. Secondly, Midsummer Mischief is a tribute to the extraordinary legacy of Buzz Goodbody, who established Theatregoround and set up The Other Place in the 70s under the directorship of Trevor Nunn before sadly taking her own life in 1975. The third aim is to interrogate the idea of feminism(s) in 2014 in a way which is theatrically engaging and politically charged which, let’s be honest, is a bit of a novelty for the RSC (this will be a theme I’ll come back to at a later date in order to give it the level of thought it deserves). The final, and perhaps most exciting strand of Midsummer Mischief, however, is the one I hope to interrogate a little here: collaboration.
Now, it would be grossly unfair and misrepresentative to argue that the RSC doesn’t have a culture and history of collaboration; working together for a common aim is in its very bones, and is a necessary part of the work produced for its stages. Indeed, it works so well you could argue that the central structures of the company work a little bit like a machine, with everyone having a very specific job to do and completing it to the highest standard. On a technical level, it does what it is required to do very well.
The question, I guess, is whether it sometimes works too well.
That is to say, in a company as large as this it can be easy to lose sight of the overall picture as individual roles become ever-more specialised which, if not stifling creativity, at least makes genuine play and freedom more difficult to attain.
And this is where Midsummer Mischief comes in.
Chatting to a number of people involved with the season, a vibe which the team are striving for is one of a fringe theatre. This includes, but is not limited to: the construction of a pop-up auditorium, sourcing rather than buying props and costumes, utilising one acting company of six across all four plays, the use of a bare-bones technical team and an anarchy of approach in the rehearsal room, which hopes to spawn a festival atmosphere for a month this summer.
There are clearly plenty of questions to ask of this approach; What right, for example, do the RSC have to appropriate a ‘fringe mentality’ when they have a perfectly healthy, functioning way of making work already? Surely they understand that ‘sourcing’ for a company with as many stores as them is a different kettle of fish to the ‘nicking-stuff-from-your-brother’s-wardrobe’ approach of many young companies? Why should we even care that the RSC are doing ‘radical’ work when hundreds of artists have been working like this for years?
The trouble with these arguments, of course, is that they’re reductive, suggesting that traffic between small and large theatres is one-way, with the only way being ‘up’. It imposes a hierarchy where one shouldn’t exist (though God knows the RSC can be guilty of perpetuating that mentality, too). The truth, as we know, is that the exchange of ideas and the movement of personnel between organisations is far more fluid than that, meaning that the RSC can learn just as much from fringe theatre as fringe theatres can learn from the RSC. In fact, you could argue that the possibility of those based in Stratford to learn stuff is far larger due to its exponential potential.
Midsummer Mischief is attempting a kind of socialism in the way in which it hopes to engage the company – and audiences – at large. This weekend, for example, everyone employed by the company has been offered the opportunity to help paint the new foyer at the Courtyard, whilst calls are being put out on a regular basis for the odd difficult-to-find prop. And though members of the team have broadly-defined jobs and tasks to complete, there’s a feeling of everyone pitching in, with those working in marketing having a say on the artistic output and the set designers contemplating how the brochure might look; everyone’s opinion is valid on any subject.
This is all, of course, without mentioning the process of rehearsal itself. The rehearsal schedule is unique due to the company being formed of four writers, six actors, two directors, two assistant directors, two designers and a handful of stage management staff. A single week, then, includes two days working on Rep A (directed by Erica Whyman with plays by Timberlake Wertenbaker and Alice Birch), two days on Rep B (directed by Jo McInnes with plays by Abi Zakarian and E.V. Crowe) and a day tying up loose ends.
Aside from being a bit of a logistical nightmare, this also means that each play (which have running times of up to about eighty minutes) is having to be rehearsed in what amounts to around six or seven days, forcing the actors to shift headspace every single day even as they spend their evenings furiously learning lines, some of which are being written during rehearsals.
Rather than dampen creativity, however, the sense I got from a rehearsal of Alice Birch’s Revolt. She said. Revolt again was that cast and creative team alike are being liberated to play more, to make decisions and stick to them rather than overthink or overcomplicate an idea. Within the space of an hour last week, for example, I watched sand being spilt onto the floor, flowers thrown around and a watermelon smashed with an axe. Importantly, each action was fulfilled with conviction rather than cynicism, allowing an investment in the outcome from both the actor and the director.
And though it may seem some decisions are being made off the cuff, there’s a whole subconscious and invisible layer of thinking going on too as the plays and processes inevitably speak to one another. Though an actor is unlikely to note that “Oh, that’s like x in y’s play” in the middle of a rehearsal (it should be noted that the company exhibit an extraordinary and enviable level of focus when in rehearsal for any particular piece), there’s no doubt that the lines, characters and narratives are in dialogue with one another. A scene in Birch’s play – subtitled ‘Galvanize’ – is the kind of scene you could easily spend months working on and exploring, but because of the intense and unique pressures required of this process, that exploration is being done internally as ideas are allowed to percolate during rehearsals of the other plays.
As mentioned above – and, importantly, recognised by Erica and her team – none of this is new. Companies all over the world have to work to these pressures and have been doing so for years, but just as it’s unlike a theatre such as the Lyric to employ a company of actors for eighteen months and invite audiences into the rehearsal room for a semi-improvised show, it’s unusual for a company like the RSC to have, for example, the designs for a show yet to be completed less than a month before press night. Sure, audiences and other theatre-makers may have got used to this kind of stuff a long time ago, but there’s something intangibly exciting about seeing mainstream, highly subsidised houses trying to make this kind of work.
I’ll go into this in more detail at a later date, but it’s worth pointing to Whyman’s steadfast belief that the RSC should support small-scale, cheap, radical work as well as large-scale mainstream Shakespeares. Midsummer Mischief is – with any luck – just the beginning of a strand of work which will continue long into the future, acting as a countercultural and oppositional force within the framework of the company itself, supporting new companies and made work rather than the established players and text-based work of the main houses. Many of us already know that a socialist, non-hierarchical culture of collaboration can create exciting and invigorating work which challenges makers and audiences alike. Midsummer Mischief has the potential, in the long run, to make that mainstream.