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British Jewel. The Royal Shakespeare Company is crowned with success

By Hilary DeVriesStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 13, 1983



London

Far from the vine-covered-cottage coziness of Stratford-on-Avon, the traditional mecca for devotees of the bard, the new Barbican Center has risen. Smack in the middle of London's Old City, it sits like a giant raw jewel pushed up through the earth, scattering 17th-century row houses in its way. Encrusted in glass and concrete, the surface only hints at the riches inside. Riches such as a multimillion dollar annual grant that supports 10 directors, over 100 actors, four theaters, and 10 new productions each year. In other words, one of the largest theater companies in the world.

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But the riches also include such gems as Geoffrey Hutchings, now standing center stage in front of 1,000 paying customers exhorting them to sing along, ''Rat-a-tat-tat. Rat-a-tat-tat. Kerpow splat. Have you ever seen such a succulent dish of Chinese take away?'' It helps somewhat that Mr. Hutchings is dressed as a woman in harem pants and a sort of headress that is meant to look Oriental but resembles more a golden Christmas tree aflutter with red satin balls. The audience, it seems, is in love, if not exactly on key. And rat-a-tat-tats resonate through the auditorium.

The success of that sing-along is said to stem from tradition, tradition, tradition. And in the case of the RSC, the biggest tradition is Shakespeare himself.

When harem pants and headress have been exchanged for comfortable corduroy, Hutchings says it simply, ''As an actor, I've learned the most from Shakespeare.'' Terry Hands, joint artistic director of the company with Trevor Nunn, says with equal candor, ''We simply have the best house dramatist in the world.'' And while Mr. Hands continues by asserting that ''one always fails to do justice to Shakespeare,'' critics, observers, and those within the company are quick to point out that the rigors imposed by repeated wrestlings with Shakespeare's works and language by a group of actors has wrought a rare theatrical company.

Like many of the bard's creations, it began with a speech: ''The company is managed by an able director. The secret seems to be that the outlay is not dependent on the money realised for admissions, but is guaranteed. The actors feel therefore an esprit de corps and work together as members of the one body. The result is a production as near perfection as possible, and the prestige of the company is great.''

Hamlet never uttered those words. Indeed, few audiences have heard them. But one Charles Flower at a Stratford mayoral luncheon in 1876 described his ideal theater in his own equally passionate ''To be, or not to be'' soliloquy.

It was a rare speech for its day, and a rarer vision. What Mr. Flower, a prosperous local businessman rather keen about the theater, proposed in that speech was revolutionary: the founding of a privately subsidized ensemble company to guarantee the continued performance of Shakespeare's plays. At the time, such productions were dwindling in number and quality, because of the massive outlays of capital required. Quite possibly what awaited the bard was a fame consigned to schoolboys and other solitary readers sequestered in libraries dutifully turning the pages of ''Henry IV, Part I.''

As history has it, public response to Flower's proposal at the time was tepid. But his persistence and bank account won out in the end. Three years later it was indeed to be; the Shakespeare Memorial Theater gave its first production, ''Much Ado About Nothing.'' An ironic choice, perhaps, for in 1962 the British government scurried to scratch out a royal charter and a public subsidy for the company. Thus the Royal Shakespeare Company officially came into being and was given the sacred trust of preserving the name of the bard by regular performances of all his works. Even ''Titus Andronicus'' is ensured of having its day on stage.