The Royal Shakespeare Company has announced a major shake-up that is intended to lure big-name stars back into the fold, make the bard a West End staple and attract new, younger audiences and actors to the classics.
As part of its far-reaching plans, the RSC will abandon its London home at the Barbican Centre where it has been based for nearly two decades. The move completes a partial withdrawal that began in 1997 when the RSC reduced its London residency there to only the six winter months of the year. RSC artistic director Adrian Noble said that the changes would allow the company to mount "bold and original theatre" for one-off runs, kicked off by glittering openings, in the "heart of the West End."
He continued: "The RSC will adopt a more flexible model for its operations in London, moving centre stage with more plays in a wider range of venues, more premieres and an important presence in the West End. We will have more first nights. All that is attractive to actors as well as audiences."
What is likely to be even more attractive to actors is the relaxation of the contract terms for performing with the company. In the past, actors have had to commit to up to two years and performances at the RSC's permanent base in Stratford-upon-Avon as well as in London, terms which effectively barred high-profile stars with film and television careers. Ralph Fiennes (who recently appeared in the Almeida's Shakespeare double bill in Shoreditch, east London) and Kenneth Branagh (who has just been confirmed for a Sheffield run of Richard III in 2002) have already expressed interest in returning to the RSC where their careers began.
Noble also unveiled plans for developing more young actors with classical training. The director has been concerned that many established drama schools now favour television acting skills over those needed for the classics. The RSC's one-year post-graduate training will attempt to counter that with a focus on Shakespeare. Initially, 16 students will be selected for the actors' academy, and Noble hopes to introduce a course for directors in the future. The RSC announcements are not all good news. The move from the Barbican will result in up to 60 redundancies amongst backstage staff. It's also uncertain how the Barbican Centre will cope with the gaping hole in its schedule. However, Barbican artistic director Graham Sheffield is not unduly disturbed. He's likely to extend the Barbican's remit to stage international theatre, which has proved successful with its now annual BITE (Barbican International Theatre Event) festival. In addition, the RSC has said that it will return to the Barbican with occasional projects, such as the new production of Alice in Wonderland will be presented there in 2002.