The Royal Shakespeare Company: Aspects of its History and Development since 1960


Benedict Nightingale, Former Theatre Critic of The Guardian and The Times



The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), as Benedict Nightingale said, opening his entertaining talk on this wide-ranging subject, did not emerge out of nothing in particular. It went back to the time of Ellen Terry and Herbert Beerbohm Tree in London, around 1910,moved into the 1930s - when there was a fall in standards, with seven plays being given in eight weeks - then on to the 1950s. Here, at Stratford-upon-Avon, many of Britain’s finest actors gathered to offer interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays. Among them, led by Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, and Peggy Ashcroft, were Dorothy Tutin, Richard Johnson, Patrick Wymark, Cyril Luckham, Irene Worth and the Australian Keith Michell. Glen Byam Shaw and Peter Brook were leading directors of that time. 


Peter Hall, then aged 29, was chosen as the first Director of the newly formed Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960. He had directed Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in London, and was very keen for the RSC to have a London base as well as Stratford. His preference was for the Aldwych Theatre. Hall was also anxious to have a company on three-year contracts, without major stars. He wanted actors who were protean (i.e. very versatile, and able to change and adapt roles very quickly).


At the Aldwych, Hall directed Harold Pinter’s The Collection, featuring Michael Hordern and Kenneth Williams. His King Lear at Stratford had Paul Scofield as ‘a difficult old man, who deserved his fate, even if in the end he was transformed by it.’  The RSC went ahead and proved itself when the Shakespeare scholar and director John Barton gave the three Henry VI plays and Richard III, with Peggy Ashcroft as Margaret of Anjou, and Janet Suzman as Jeanne la Pucelle.


Peter Hall was a very ambitious man, who liked always to achieve high objectives, and to get his own way.  After an illustrious career in the theatre, including some years a director of the national Theatre on the South Bank, Hall died of Alzheimer’s in 2017 aged 86. From early on, at Stratford and the Aldwych, he had bouts of public weeping, and even considered suicide. There was stress in his job as RSC Director all along the line. His doctors ordered him to rest for six months. Hall’s War of the Roses cycle turned out to be a brilliant box office success, and established the RSC as the central British theatrical company. In 1965, Hall brought in an unknown actor, David Warner, to play Hamlet under his direction. Warner was a strange, diffident, nervous lad, brought up in Leamington Spa, who had failed many auditions, yet still managed to get into the RSC. He ‘ hadn’t even been a spear -carrier’, as Benedict said, and was a ‘gangling, awkward undergraduate from Wittenberg’, but his Hamlet was hugely popular. Benedict felt that Warner’s later decision to go to Hollywood was ‘a poor move.’


The Marat/Sade play by Peter Weiss (1963) was set in a mental health sanatorium, and directed by Peter Brook. It was an example of the newly fashionable ‘theatre of cruelty’, and made a big impact on London. Set on one day, 13 July 1808, it was a play within a play, of which the main themes are bluntly described as the French Revolution and sadomasochism. Following the first London performances at the end of April 1964, it was called ‘ a filthy play’ by some, and hailed as a masterpiece by others. It was certainly good for the RSC, even though it took big risks. Audiences were also shocked by Harold Pinter’s Homecoming (1965) in which the son of a London family brings his new bride home form across the Atlantic, only to set her up gradually as a family prostitute. Nothing like this had been seen in London before. 


The Cambridge educated Trevor Nunn was hired from the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, aged 26. He was appointed new Director of the RSC at Stratford, aged 28. Nunn had directed 34 productions at Cambridge, and was a contemporary of Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, John Cleese and David Frost. At Stratford, he began badly, but then directed a very successful Revenger’s Tragedy (Cyril Tourneur). It was under Nunn that Peter Brook directed his celebrated A Midsummer Night’s Dream production, with swings and trapezes, circus tricks and with Puck as a Chinese rabbi. Benedict said that he was the only critic at the time who did not admire this production, now the stuff of legend.


At Stratford, Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra, the Roman plays, were done in sequence to show the development of Rome through barbarism to decadence. In London, Tom Stoppard’s Travesties was given at the Aldwych, with John Wood (a fine actor much admired by Benedict) in the lead, together with the maxim Gorky plays, showing large-spiritedness and a sense of new (Russian) territory, directed by David Jones. 


In 1974, The Other Place opened at Stratford, in a converted old storeroom. Trevor Nunn was keen to have a more intimate theatre. The Other Place was later rebuilt. Ben Kingsley played a ‘laughing’ Hamlet, full of humour and mockery. ‘The rest is silence’ became a black joke. The McKellen / Judi Dench Macbeth was the best Benedict had ever seen - and remains the best, for sheer intensity. He felt, as others have, that McKellen’s Macbeth was the very incarnation of evil. The playwright David Edgar appeared, and the RSC created new stars, such as Simon Russell Beale as Konstantin in The Seagull and as Ariel in The Tempest. The versatile Scots actor David Tennant played many parts, while the Yorkshire born Patrick Stewart also joined the company.   Patrick was ‘a theatre-mad boy from an awful, violent family in Yorkshire’ who called the RSC ‘my university’. He played Enobarbus, Shylock, King John and other roles, and stayed with the RSC for fourteen years. Patrick also played Prospero in Rupert Goold’s strange production of The Tempest, set in the Arctic Circle.


There evolved a distinctive RSC ‘house-style’- spare, cutting and witty, concentrating on meaning, rather than showiness or display. There was particular minimalism of effect. Kenneth Tynan, perhaps the leading critic of his time, said of the RSC that it had developed ‘solid Brechtian settings that emphasised wood and metal instead of canvas’.  Benedict observed that the new National Theatre in London - of which Hall had succeed Sir Laurence Olivier as Artistic Director - were seen as the Cavaliers’, while the RSC were the Roundheads. Peter Hall called himself an ‘iambic fundamentalist’ emphasising the quality of verse speaking at all times, in all its detail. He had felt that the RSC was trying too hard for a sort of psychological realism - meditating, rather than poetic, verbal delivery.


Nicholas Nickleby came to the RSC, and was another huge success. It had Roger Rees in the title role, (even though Rees had said that he thought he was too old for the part) together with the young David Threlfall as Smike. This was followed in 1985 by Les Miserables. Benedict admitted that he had never read Victor Hugo’s novel, but had loved the production, even though others, like Jack Tinker of the Daily Mail, did not care for it. Because of the roaring success of Nicholas Nickleby, for some time the RSC was tartly referred to as ’the Royal Dickens Company’.


Trevor Nunn went on to great success in the commercial theatre, with Cats and Starlight Express. Terry Hands, who created the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, became co-director of the RSC in 1978. A 430-seat theatre, The Swan, opened at this time in Stratford, with an Elizabethan configuration, allowing for simplicity and fluency, and with minimal décor.

Adrian Noble, who took over as RSC Director in 1997, did a Lear with Michael Gambon as the Fool, and also directed the History plays with Ralph Fiennes as lead actor. He had such hope for the RSC, and said that he disliked ‘thatched cottage Shakespeare.’ However, things began to go wrong, when the RSC abandoned the Aldwych in London, and moved to the Barbican, which the actors hated. They then went to the Haymarket Theatre, which turned out to be too expensive. Sadly, the RSC lost faith in Noble, because of his rather dictatorial style, and because of gagging clause in contracts. There was even a plan to demolish the original Memorial Theatre at Stratford, dating from 1932, causing a big rebellion among the company and beyond.


Adrian Noble left, and in came Michael Boyd, who inherited a deficit of £ 3 million. Boyd hoped to turn the RSC round. He wanted it to rediscover its soul, and he succeeded. A fine Midsummer Night’s Dream for grownups (very sexy, Benedict said) developed into a policy of giving every Shakespeare play to different companies, including a Kuwaiti company. The RSC’s main auditorium was completely reconstructed, with a big thrust open stage. This worked very well in practice, as audiences across the world will have seen in the numerous RSC cinema relays.


Benedict Nightingale left The Times in 2010. He said that under peter Hall, five hundred actors had taken part in 28 productions. The income had been £86.44 million, and the Arts Council had provided a grant of £14.9 million. Benedict had a soft spot for actors such as the late Donald Sinden, who was very funny alongside Judi Dench in Much Ado about Nothing (as Benedict and Beatrice) and was a brilliant Malvolio in Twelfth Night. As mentioned earlier, Benedict was a longstanding fan of John Wood, a superb Brutus in Julius Caesar, playing him as a prim, priggish liberal. He felt that John Wood was a very underrated actor. Benedict paid tribute to the fin e director Buzz Goodbody, who very sadly took her own life. Benedict was an admirer, too, of Anthony Sher’s Lear and Falstaff, and of the work of Sinead Cusack, Janet Suzman and the late Elizabeth Sprigge.  


© Dr Robert Blackburn (BRLSI Convenor) based on notes taken at Benedict Nightingale’s talk