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.
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.
* On a typically bleak winter day, the RSC is abuzz as usual. The Barbican's interior structure resembles not so much the rarefied atmosphere perhaps befitting the best in the business, as it does a beehive. Long corridors honeycomb the vast cement structure, linking rehearsal rooms with stages with wardrobe repair with the wigmaking room with the box office and a vast expanse of offices. Riding up and down elevators and pushing through a never-ending succession of double doors, one hears the alternating cadences of hammers pounding, actors shouting, music playing, and feet thumping - an artistic pulse.
Down seven floors, in the basement, sits the ''Green Room,'' an in-house watering hole for RSC actors. On this day it is a warm and cozy clubhouse for company members assembled for an early evening supper just 30 minutes before the curtain rises on the evening's performance of ''Henry IV, Part I.'' Over in one corner, Mistress Quickly congregates with some familiar-looking country folk in friendly back-slapping postures. There, Henry IV hobnobs with Lady Percy. Kings and peasants, bereft of robes and hopsacking look disappointingly normal; some of the best actors in the world, and they wear blue jeans and have their feet on the chairs.
Twenty-eight-year-old Gerard Murphy, who stars as Prince Hal in the current Henry series, sits cross-legged in blue sweat pants. His broad face is flushed from a recent rehearsal, his ruby-tinged blond hair curls in damp ringlets, and he laughs a laugh as deep as a cello when asked about his current starring role. ''You have to think of it as just another job. But I love Shakespeare. I know he's difficult, but he's difficult for all the right reasons. And the bonus of theater work is that you have more and more chances to get it right.
''Far more arresting than his words is his voice, a rich, rough speech that, like an ear of harvest-ripe corn, wears a thick husk. Listening to the actors sprawled here, one discovers what separates them from the rest of us - their voices. Years of training have given each actor the ability to speak with the resonance of an oak tree. Whether Patrick Stewart, the company's current Henry IV and a regal and patrician-looking man, is on stage uttering his careful and solemn lines or here ordering his supper, his voice is as warm and rich as burnished wood. You listen almost against your will. Altogether, the actors sound like the Arden wood come to life.
''Few people have a real passion to do Shakespeare,'' Mr. Stewart says. ''I do have that passion, and it's what has kept me all the years. I know I can return and do Shakespeare under conditions that are stimulating.'' Stewart is an associate RSC artist, which means he has been with the company more than a few years and has a resume bursting with juicy, plum roles, such as Shylock in ''The Merchant of Venice'' and Oberon in ''A Midsummer Night's Dream.'' Lady Percy, or Harriet Walter, is a youngster by comparison, having only been with the company a short two years. With her mass of brown ringlets and wide, innocent eyes, she is the perfect foil for the kingly Stewart.
''It's different for women,'' she says, shaking her Jacobean-looking curls. ''You can't get that many roles. Shakespeare was very hierarchical in his writing - there just aren't the number of good parts for women there are for men.'' Stewart agrees. ''Before an actor is cast as Hamlet or Romeo or other juvenile leads, the company will have expected him to have quite a lot of experience. In the past, I have seen actresses come from drama school and go right into Juliet and Cleopatra. On the the other hand, many actresses come in, stick around for two seasons, and never have a chance to show what they can do.''
To stick around, or not to stick around is a common question among RSC actors. After years of shifting arrangements, the RSC now contracts its actors for a two-year cycle, during which an actor will appear in four or five plays, often doing two at the same time. After that, an actor is free to renew his contract with the company or pursue other options. ''You have to make yourself available,'' says Hutchings. ''The RSC opens a lot of doors, but ironically not within the industry. People will say 'Yes, he's good, but how can we get him? He's tied up with the RSC.' ''
* Several floors above this cheerfully raucous melange is a very different scene. Here is a vast rabbit warren of offices under skin of skylights. These are the creative nerve centers of the company - offices for the 10 directors and two artistic directors. Trevor Nunn, the long-time artistic director of the company whom many credit with the company's recent success, is out dining at Fortnum and Mason this afternoon. When he returns to the hive he slips into a closed-door rehearsal for the company's holiday production of ''Peter Pan.'' Like an elusive white rabbit, Nunn disappears down one of the long corridors and one catches sight only of his trademark goatee.
The other artistic copilot of the company, Terry Hands, is more accessible. Entering his smallish, skylit office is like stepping into a minimalist painting. The room, spare and luminous white, frames Mr. Hands - spare, pale, and dressed completely in black. The room is entirely silent except for the sound of the director's voice, rich and modulated, politely assessing his company's strengths.
''I think there are really three major strengths plus some minor ones. One, it's one of a very few companies in the world where directors and a good part of the actors stay together for a number of years, say 20-odd years. That in itself is very rare and is probably its primary strength.
''Secondly, it is a company dedicated to and centered on Shakespeare. We are the only company in the world completely besotted by Shakespeare, spending all our time trying to make Shakespeare work.
''And thirdly, we are operating in the English language. It is the most modern, the most free, the most dramatic language the world has ever known. We have thrown out word order, we have thrown out most of the verb endings. You can stress a word short or long, you can go very fast or go very slow. You can use the Latin roots of the language and set up grandeur, or you can use the Saxon roots and set up almost a machine-gun attack on a line or rhythmn. Or you can use the Celtic roots and set up mystery and ambiguity. Those things are what our actors have. And where the Italians have got their painting and the Germans their music, we have drama.''
It is about as succinct an assessment of the company as one is likely to find. It is also not an uncommon appraisal. Most observers, in and out of the company, point to cultural, linguistic, and dramatic traditions as central to the RSC's success - such as the British attitude toward drama.
''The actors of the RSC are probably the best in the world,'' says Dr. John Crabtree, English professor and Shakespearean scholar at Furman University in South Carolina. ''But the English have always been in love with the theater. Ever since the Dark Ages nearly every town in Britain has supported some sort of live theater. The RSC simply benefits from a national tradition of classic theater.''
''England is a place where the dramatic tradition is defined by literature more than anything else,'' says another RSC director, John Caird. ''One spends a lot of time looking for neglected masterpieces to perform,'' he adds. The RSC has a reputation for performing other, perhaps obscure British plays - ancient and modern - in its two smaller theaters. The company employs a literary manager who regularly scans the classics and reads the 500 or so new plays that every year come tumbling in from aspiring British playwrights. ''Most regular theater companies cannot possibly cope with the demands of Shakespeare and his Jacobean contemporaries,'' says literary manager Colin Chambers. ''And few companies could have mounted our recent musical, 'Poppy,' with consistent quality. What the RSC can offer is a consistent cast that most theaters couldn't muster at today's costs.''
Even the National Theater, Britain's other large subsidized theater and the company with which the RSC is most often compared, does not function as such a tightly knit unit, say company members. But such an emphasis on a tradition of company unity has also earned the RSC some criticism for becoming too complacent , too cerebral in its productions. That has also earned it the label of being a ''director's company'' - a controversial term at best. While some feel that such a company can border on the autocratic, others consider the RSC's strong directorial talent - namely Trevor Nunn's leadership - to be its primary strength.
''Without a doubt, after Shakespeare, the other major influence is the director's,'' Stewart says. Director Hands disagrees. ''I don't think people come to the theater to see the work of a director. I think they come to see the play and the actors.'' Director Caird has other thoughts. ''I think that one of the main strengths of the company is that we are a tight association of 10 directors, all of whom have extraordinarily diverse tastes, backgrounds, and experiences - and yet are able to work together with common goals. And a passion for working on the works of Shakespeare is the most obvious.''
After hours of listening to slightly damp actors, stepping over blue papier-mache pantomime horses, and watching long, black Chinese pigtail wigs being hammered onto head molds, one gets the feeling that what is really at the root of the Royal Shakespeare Company is indeed its namesake. Whether one is discussing the merits of British drama (''It is a forum for intellectual debate rather than simply entertainment,'' a director says), or acting techniques (''Shakespeare allows you to face all the acting challenges there are,'' an actress asserts), the image of the bard is evoked time and again. If the RSC, like any other theater company, is a business married to an art form, then the question of the company's deficit (which there is) and video contracts (which there will be) and corporate funding (which there is increasingly more of) are as crucial to the company's well being as are questions of where to hide Peter Pan's guy wires and how the Henry plays should be reinterpreted post-Watergate.
But possibly the biggest merit of the company is that it exists. And for those solitary readers of Shakespeare scattered throughout classrooms and libraries who may struggle through pages of the bard's immortal prose, King Henry IV can reign as a man in a glistening white robe, a crown, and one white spotlight. With the audience in his hands, he can step to the edge of the stage and utter the words ''So shaken as we are, so wan with care'' like water dropping into silence.