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Wednesday, 30 May, 2001, 15:02 GMT 16:02 UK
All change at the RSC
Talks have begun with staff at the Barbican
By BBC News Online's Olive Clancy

Britain's leading theatre company, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), has had a shake-up - and the rumpus was immediate.

The changes to the RSC entail job losses and mean abandoning the company's London base at the Barbican Centre.

Theatre union Bectu said it was "horrified" - and some critics were anxious about the future of the illustrious RSC.

Adrian Noble
The RSC's artistic director Adrian Noble
Now the dust is settling it is time to examine the proposals.

There are two main aims. The first is to make the RSC more flexible, with a variety of smaller productions at a variety of theatres.

It also wants to become more attractive to big-name actors by offering shorter contracts.

The RSC says it will start to choose theatres to suit a particular work, giving it greater flexibility and freedom to innovate - meaning it will say goodbye to a permanent home.

Fleet of foot

Matt Wolf, Variety magazine's London Theatre critic, says he is surprised at this, and blames a British tendency to blame buildings for theatrical ills.

"There is this feeling that here that buildings are millstones around theatre company's necks," he says.

Smaller theatres have been the buzz in UK theatre for some time. There is the feeling that the RSC and the Royal National Theatre are not fleet of foot enough to capture audiences.

RSC production of A Russian in the Woods
A scene from the RSC production of A Russian in the Woods
But Wolf says it is not so much the space itself that is the problem, as the tendency for artistic directors to get bogged down in their administration.

And it should be remembered that the Barbican was built specifically to RSC specifications, though that was a long time ago.

At least the Barbican does not seem overly bothered at being abandoned.

Barbican managing director John Tusa welcomed the plan, saying it would free up his stages for popular international events.

This summer The Barbican will welcome Theatre de Complicité's latest work The Noise of Time, contemporary plays by Japan's Yukio Mishima and the UK premiere of Robert Wilson's production of Strindberg's A Dream Play.

Bectu has criticised the shake-up on the grounds that both the domestic audience and the large tourist market want the RSC to have a "home".

But Wolf, an American based in London, says that he cannot see the changes having much effect on tourists.

The Secret Garden
The Secret Garden was the RSC's first musical for 10 years
"There is something to be said for having a home - and remember that for 22 years the RSC was based at the Aldwych Theatre in the West End - but I cannot see the new plans being a difficulty."


RSC artistic director Adrian Noble is keen to institute a regime of shorter contracts so star actors can join the company for individual productions.

Ralph Fiennes and Kenneth Branagh, both former RSC alumni, have already agreed to perform under the new arrangement.

Given the demand for "names" to win audiences for plays this move is inevitable.

"I know from experience that big stars, but also the more mature actors with families found it difficult to take RSC two-year contracts," says theatrical agent Marina Martin who represents Simon Callow and several RSC actors.

David Oyelowo
The RSC broke tradition last year by casting David Oyelowo as an English monarch
Ironically the long-contract system was put in place to protect actors, giving them job security and the time to perfect the craft.

Martin says it is changes in the film and television business that have caused this knock-on effect in the theatre.

"There are so many production companies about, all trying to get a green light on film projects, all of which need a star name on," she says.

In the meantime actors must keep themselves free in case a project gets the go-ahead, and this is true of everyone, not just the stars.

While he welcomes the shake-up in general, what Wolf mourns is the erosion of the repertory system in which a company of actors would perform different roles in a rotation of plays.

"I think audiences love to see actors like Simon Russell-Beale perform in three different plays in a weekend and the RSC did that uniquely well," he says.

Others - like Terri Paddock, editorial director of - disagree.

"As wonderful as the repertory system is, it rules out better known actors getting involved as they have other commitments," she says.

Whatsonstage recently conducted a survey of theatre audiences who said they were tired of TV and pop stars who drop out of leading stage productions.

She feels that while keen theatre-goers are cynical of gimmicky star casting, a classical name can pull in a big audience.

"I think a shake-up at the RSC was long overdue and we'll have to see how it is implemented, but this is not about glitzy style over substance," she says.

Nobody doubts the calibre of classically trained British actors, and particularly those of the RSC.

If Noble can now attract other former alumni like Michael Gambon, Juliet Stevenson, Ian McKellan, Patrick Stewart and Emily Watson to join Fiennes and Branagh, there will not be any complaints.

The RSC's Adrian Noble and critic Michael Billington
discuss the planned shake-up of the Royal Shakespeare Company
See also:

28 Mar 01 | Arts
RSC: Shakespeare and beyond
22 Mar 01 | Arts
Cash boost for arts
15 Mar 01 | Entertainment
Radical shake-up at Arts Council
13 Mar 01 | UK Politics
'Give arts back to the people' - Tories
08 Mar 01 | Entertainment
Theatres share in £25m windfall
08 Mar 01 | Entertainment
Theatres: The agony and the ecstasy
28 Jun 99 | Entertainment
No more 'fossils' at the Arts Council
24 May 01 | Arts
RSC announces shake-up
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