A winter of discontent at Britain's RSC. The company that exported `Les Mis'erables' faces big challenges at home

From a purely American perspective it might appear as if Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is having a banner year. That is, if one looks solely at the record-setting $11 million advance sale generated by ``Les Mis'erables,'' the RSC's sellout West End musical, opening on Broadway tomorrow.

Closer inspection here at the RSC's home, however, reveals a company that is struggling through a winter of discontent.

Mounting financial pressures, growing charges of commercialism, and years of alleged administrative truancy on the part of Trevor Nunn, director of ``Les Mis'erables'' and the RSC's former chief executive, have created one of the worst organizational crises in recent memory and produced a decline in the company's traditional artistic integrity and adventurousness.

This year's season at the Barbican Theatre, which included not one new Shakespearean production, was considered one of the weakest ever.

And even last year's much-heralded revival of ``Nicholas Nickleby'' did little to boost the company's fortunes or standings.

The play's United States tour, which resulted in an abbreviated run in face of flagging ticket sales, was considered largely a failure.

Clearly Nunn's absences and recent resignation, as well as the company's growing commercial ambitions have created a number of conflicts.

What began four years ago with Nunn's commitment to commercial theater (``Cats'' and ``Starlight Express''), opera (``Porgy and Bess''), and film (``Lady Jane'') ultimated last summer in accusations in the Times of London that he, as well as Sir Peter Hall, artistic director of the National Theatre, had used their posts for profiteering.

Both Nunn and Hall deny the allegations and have sued the newspaper.

With Nunn now serving in only an advisory capacity, the RSC has appointed his former assistant, Terry Hands, as the company's chief executive.

Although the change is being greeted here as official acknowledgment of a de facto situation, questions as to whether the new organizational stability will translate into much needed aesthetic vigor are still raging.

Mr. Hands wasted no time in launching what is, on paper, the RSC's most ambitious season to date: 47 productions this year. That is 17 more than last season, which was a record for any theater company.

In addition, the company will acquire its sixth full-time theater, the Mermaid, in London's West End.

However, such moves haven't ended the company's fiscal and artistic wranglings. Despite the increase in productions, the company's budget has remained flat for years. And RCS productions continue to be targets for a barrage of media criticism.

The complaints range from charges of excessive directorial tinkering with the Shakespearean plays to the company's growing dependency on blockbuster commercial successes.

Starting seven years ago with the megahit ``Nicholas Nickleby'' the company has produced a regular series of musicals, which, according to critics, are staged solely to earn the RSC much-needed revenue.

When ``Les Mis'erables'' first opened at the Barbican, one critic lambasted its flagrant commercial appeal as ``wanton promiscuity.''

And the company's newest musical offering, ``Kiss Me, Kate,'' which opened to mixed reviews in Stratford last month, was called by the Times ``an iso lated event designed for a commercial tour.''

Meanwhile, concern is being raised in-house over the increased use of commercial sponsors to defray mounting production costs.

One prominent actorrecently threatened to withdraw from a production if a less controversial backer could not be found.

In addition, continued use of star such actors as Jeremy Irons to boost attendance is drawing sharp criticism.

``It's all about [getting patrons] in seats now,'' says one RSC actress.

If there is a silver lining to the company's darkened fortunes, however, it can be found at Stratford, the RSC's home and center for nearly all the company's new productions.

It is there in the Swan Theatre - the 400-seat, neo-Elizabethan stage that opened last spring - that the RSC is doing some of its finest work.

Originally intended as a home for productions of lesser-known works by Shakespeare's contemporaries in the company's effort to put the Bard's work in context, the Swan has provided an entirely fresh arena.

It was here that Nunn directed his final RSC production, Thomas Heywood's ``The Fair Maid of the West,'' a little-known Elizabethan comedy. Other productions at the Swan have earned critical kudos: ``The Two Noble Kinsmen,'' for RSC newcomer Imogen Stubbs's riveting performance; and ``The Rover,'' for the fine work of Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack. But it is the galvanic ensemble work and sheer theatricality in ``Fair Maid'' that most testifies to the RSC's traditional strengths.

(All three plays will reopen in London later this spring at the Mermaid.)

If the successes at the Swan have overshadowed the Shakespearean productions in the main Stratford theater - particularly the misconceived and limp production of ``The Winter's Tale,'' which also starred Irons - then they also serve as a much needed reminder of the enduring talent still encompassed by the world's largest theater company.

In his direction of ``Fair Maid'' Nunn called upon many of the staging and design techniques he used in ``Nicholas Nickleby.''

Actors racing about the entire auditorium, simple props imaginatively used, audience participation - all elevate the play, which was originally a two-part, 16th-century saga, beyond its slim literary merit to a hurtling picaresque narrative.

Although Heywood has been labeled ``a sort of prose Shakespeare'' - and, indeed, even a cursory look reveals an emphasis on galloping plot rather than honed character or well-crafted language - ``Fair Maid'' remains one of the few Elizabethan dramas to feature a female protagonist. And RSC newcomer Imelda Staunton proves a plucky and thoroughly plausible heroine.

As Bess Bridges - the Plymouth barmaid who travels half the world in a devoted search for her lover - the diminutive, cherubic-faced Miss Staunton so accurately captures the woman's intrepid, independent temperament (``a sweet lass ... honest ... not proud'') that we never once doubt her ability to inspire and transform the rough-hewn characters accompanying her into paridigms of morality.

While the brilliant set design - a few ropes and pieces of canvas miraculously turn the stage from tavern to ship - by John Napier (``Cats'' and ``Nicholas Nickleby'') adds to the production's infectious good humor, it is ultimately the spirited and masterful interplay among the 14-member cast, who double and triple up on roles, that most wins us over to the play's unlikely plot and didactic themes.

Indeed, the entire production emerges as a somewhat jingoistic, albeit jolly, tribute to England, female constancy, and the group ethic.

Following its unqualified success in Stratford, ``Fair Maid'' is sure to remind London audiences of the earlier ``Nickleby,'' while making Nunn's other recent efforts, particularly the overblown and oddly ineffectual ``Les Mis'erables,'' appear self-conscious and overproduced.

Meanwhile, the West End is already the site for one of the RSC's few other successes of last season, ``Les Liaisons dangereuses.'' And in this mesmerizing production, directed by Howard Davies, it is again the fine ensemble work, augmented by two riveting performances, that's propelling the Christopher Hampton adaptation of Pierre Laclos's 18th-century novel into one of the hottest tickets here, and one of the most anticipated New York debuts. It is scheduled for a Broadway opening in mid-April.

Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan (who won Britain's version of Broadway's Antoinette Perry, or Tony, award for her role) are magnetic in this sinister and seductive tale about the moral and sexual decadence of the French aristocracy.

Davies's controlled direction allows the tension to build of its own accord. And Bob Crowley's marvelously dishabille set is languidly evocative of Parisian salons and boudoirs without being overdone. However, it is clearly Hampton's carefully crafted text that is most responsible for the sheer dramatic power of the production.

Moving smartly along with all the thrust and parry of a fencing match - finesse and artistry concealing deadly intent - ``Liaisons'' is Hampton's best work to date. His dialogue and structure capture the essence of dramatic exchange: Each character's lines conceal the speaker's immediate intent while eliciting a change in the hearer's responses.

It is the distillate of drama, and it launches ``Liaisons'' right up there with ``Fair Maid'' as bright lights piercing the RSC's current gloom.

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