For the Royal Shakespeare Company, the play's the thing

The troupe, currently touring the US with Sir Ian McKellan as its marquee star, carries the mystique of ancient traditions. But its history belies such perceptions.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In the arts world, there are few organizations with the brand recognition of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The RSC's current US tour features Sir Ian McKellen playing the role of King Lear, a casting coup which has further burnished the RSC's reputation as the world's foremost interpreters of the Bard.

But is the RSC really the definitive Shakespeare theater troupe? And are tickets to a string of US tour dates worth the thousands of dollars some scalpers are selling them for?

The RSC, in its current form, really only dates back to the 1960s – which is not even as old as some American Shakespeare troupes. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival dates back to 1935, and the Virginia Shakespeare Festival boasts that its city, Williamsburg, has been home to productions of the Bard since 1753.

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History does play a big part of the RSC's success – it's just measured in decades, and not centuries. What the RSC does – and has done well since 1960 – is repertory. This is on display in the current US tour, where on some nights Ian McKellen plays the title character in "Lear," and on other nights plays the smaller role of Sorin in Chekov's "The Seagull." (Most of the RSC actors play parts in both productions.)

It was Sir Peter Hall who established the RSC as this kind of repertory theater in 1960. By making the RSC into a full-time company, it quickly became home to a generation of first-rate English actors, including Sir Ian Holm, Helen Mirren, and Vanessa Redgrave.

"Since Peter Hall's days, the RSC stands for actors coming together to perform for a extended period of time," says Vikki Heywood, the RSC's executive director. "People who come and see our work are aware of this – that it isn't the result of just six weeks of rehearsal, but rather a creative journey that the actors have taken."

So is the Royal Shakespeare Company really "royal?" While there is a connection between Shakespeare and royalty – it is believed that Queen Elizabeth attended a performance of "The Merry Wives of Windsor" – it wasn't the Royal Shakespeare Company her majesty would have seen that evening. That would have be the bard's own troupe, named "Lord Chamberlain's Men."

And the RSC's roots don't go back to Elizabethan times. When asked about the example the RSC sets, Ms. Heywood says: "We try a contemporary approach. We don't perform in original practices; we're not trapped in tights. "

So if RSC isn't more "authentic" than other contemporary Shakespeare companies, where does it get its storied reputation? The organization, based in Stratford-upon-Avon (the Bard's hometown), has its roots in the Stratford Theater, which dates back to 1879. The company became "royal" in 1925 but, for most of its first 70 years, the theater was home only to a brief, annual festival that was considered accomplished, but less-than-stellar.

At the RSC productions in Stratford last year – and the Trevor Nunn-directed "King Lear" last month in New York – what stood out most was how at ease the actors were with the 400-year-old texts. Even in accomplished US Shakespeare productions, one can get the sense that some of the actors are new to the material.

Not so with the RSC. Since the 1960s, RSC performers have had to learn the Bard's plays inside and out. "Repertory is a vital part of what makes the RSC significant and different," Heywood says.

This US tour is a chance to showcase this tradition. Jeremy Adams, one of the RSC producers, describes how the younger members of the cast have been watching and learning from McKellen. "They look up to him. It's a growing and enriching experience for them – and for Ian," Mr. Adams says. The RSC prides itself on this passing of theatrical traditions from person to person, along with a commitment to rehearsal.

The RSC's traditions run deep. Adams gives one example. "Trevor Nunn, who also ran the company from 1968 to 1987, and McKellen decided back when they were at university, that when Ian was ready for 'Lear,' Trevor would direct it." This gets to the heart of why the RSC's tour is so popular – it's not every day that one gets to see a production of "King Lear" (or any Shakespeare play, for that matter) that's been 30 years in the making.

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