23rd February 2011. The RSC are coming home.
There is no fanfare or long speeches, but there is an energetic buzz moving across the audience for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s first night in the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre. This was what they called a soft opening.
Nearly 7:15 pm Edgar (Charles Aitken) is already on stage. I can just glimpse Katy Stephens waiting to make her entrance …. the machinery creaking and clanging in the background cranks up, the three sisters start their slow entrances onto the stage and King Lear begins all over again.
Though we were seeing a preview and this was obviously an opportunity to make sure the lighting and the sound is right for the new space, the production itself was so well rehearsed that there was a sense that all should go well. This production started its journey in Stratford a year ago and has travelled back via Newcastle and the Roundhouse in London. The performances are all polished and sharp now. Samantha Young’s is a steady Cordelia, Katy Stephens and Kelly Hunter make the other two sisters so very different from each other. Greg Hicks plays Lear as a man who mocks old age, teasing and being teased by his daughters as the play begins, and his own playful entrance through the audience as effective as it always was. Geoffrey Freshwater is very solid as the trusting naive Gloucester, shocked that his own son, Cornwall and Regan turn on him. There are also some very strong performances from other members of the long ensemble. I always enjoy watching Philip Edgerley as the servant grabbing a quick smoke outside. Gloucester’s home. Darrell d’Silva is an energetic Kent, and James Tucker is great as the haughty and condescending Oswald who ultimately makes the wrong choice about who to follow.
Walking round the new theatre, there are some familiar sights such as the old foyer, the fountain stairs, and parts of the Swan. Now it is possible to walk though to the Swan Theatre from the RST, and go up the tower. There are some nice touches such as the boards from the old stage between the Foyer and entrances to the new theatre. The seats are named after those who donated, but those of us who sponsored bricks are left to imagine which of the many bricks might be ours. The whole visiting experience is clearly framed by a sense of wanting the theatre to be a stop on the tourist trail. A nod to including the audience in its ensemble vision, but enough barriers and restrictions to keep them slightly at arm’s length as well.
There was a real energy on the first night in this new theatre. On the first night of the first performance, it felt that this was mainly the RSC’s own audience; people who had visited the old theatre many times and wanted to be there on this first night. As Lear and Cordelia and untangled themselves and got ready for the curtain call, some members of the audience were standing. This would be the first of many performances in this space.