David Ward on the last performance in the RST
The final word by Shakespeare spoken on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in its present form was “Assist”. Not much of a farewell to an auditorium that was created 75 years ago and saw some of the greatest performances of the 20th century.
But the Complete Works Festival ended on March 31 2007 with Greg Doran’s production of Coriolanus and Coriolanus ends with “Assist”. It’s just a shame that Shakespeare could not have added “And so adieu” or something similar. But at least William Houston can claim to be the last man to die beneath that sometimes troublesome proscenium arch.
He rose blood-spattered and grinning broadly to take his final bow and then bring on Michael Boyd, the RSC’s artistic director, to say his own last words. But Boyd seemed, for once, a bit lost for words, as if overtaken by unexpectedly strong emotions on a final day previously billed as likely to be low key. “We have been wandering around a bit like lost things today," he told the people in the purple seats before him. “This is a stage which so many extraordinary talents have given their heart and soul from."
He then, on the suggestion of Doran, proposed that everyone should rise and give a standing ovation to the theatre and all those actors who had trod its boards. So we did.
It was a night of both nostalgia and anticipation. For, if the members of Stratford district council’s planning give the go-ahead, builders will rip out the existing auditorium and create within the building’s existing walls a new playhouse, with thrust stage and two wrap-round galleries. From 2010, it will be ready to welcome new generations of extraordinary talents.
Many actors were at that final performance of Coriolanus to say their farewells: Eileen Atkins, Tim Piggot-Smith, Haydn Gwynne (recently seen as Mistress Page in Merry Wives –The Musical on the RST stage). David Warner, for many one of the greatest RSC Hamlets, was also there, perhaps thinking back to the chequer-board floor of the Elsinore where he soliloquised in the sixties. Someone mentioned the huge cannon that dominated the battlements. “Never saw it,’’ said Warner. “It was always behind me.”
Accountant turned actor Desmond Barrit, one of the best Bottoms of recent years, had a seat in the stalls and said he would not have missed this final night for the world. “It’s like leaving a house after you have lived in it for a hell of a long time,’’ he said. “But I’m sure people will take to the new building. It will be a renewed challenge.”
He admitted the old auditorium had its problems. “If you stood at the front of the stage, you had people three feet from you. You had to perform so that you were not over the top for those at the front but not so small that those at the back did not get it.”
He looked back to playing the Porter in Macbeth in 1988, at a time when banks of seats had been added to the stage in one of many attempts to improve contact between actor and audience. Every night, Barrit would drag some spectator into the action and one night picked a woman wearing a scarf who, to the delight of the audience, collapsed in giggles.
After the show, an American called to see him at the stage door. “My immediate reaction that this was my stooge’s husband who was going to murder me. He hugged me and thanked me profusely for choosing his wife. “His wife was mad about Shakespeare and had terminal cancer. As a result of the prognosis, they had brought forward their holiday by a few weeks. I then realised that acting and playing Shakespeare was more important than I had imagined.”
Doran had earlier said that the theatre was full of ghosts, which may have set some thinking of Greg Hicks dragging his sword down the aisle between those purple seats as a particularly gaunt spirit of old Hamlet in 2004. Non-actors in the audience, possibly glimpsing ghosts everywhere, admitted feeling a bit sad that the old theatre was to be destroyed, fearing perhaps that the bulldozers would take part of their youth away. Many eyes, glancing up to the hideously uncomfortable balcony where they sat on their first Shakespeare school trip, were misty with memories.
Edward Timms admitted to having a few regrets because he had sat in the old RST so many times, rather more often than most: Mr Timms, now almost 93, watched the old Victorian theatre burn down in 1926 and saw the first production (Henry VI Part One) in Elisabeth Scott’s new building shortly after it opened in 1932. He couldn’t afford the price of a seat at the early performances (they cost 10s 6d and he earned only 16s 9d a week) so waited till prices dropped.
He has been a RST regular ever since and seen them all: Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Paul Schofield, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft. His favourite Lear was Donald Sinden.
"I feel very sad that this theatre is going because it has given me many happy memories," he said. "But the new auditorium will be more intimate for audiences and the proscenium here has always been a barrier between actor and audience." The ghosts keep reappearing. In recollections prepared for the RSC, Tony Church recalls that David Warner Hamlet, directed by Peter Hall. He played Polonius, Brewster Mason was Claudius, and Elizabeth Spriggs was Gertrude. All three, plus Warner, sat at a council table which was to be wound down on wires to the centre of the stage after the ghosts (three of them) had wafted away in a cloud of mist produced by vapourising oil.
At a preview, there were two problems: the oil had leaked on to the stage and the table stuck. “Everyone up,’’ whispered Mason. “We’ll walk down.” And so they did. “We started to walk forward and we all slipped on the polished surface of the stage, which had become entirely covered in oil,’’ recalled Church. “So the entire court of Denmark slid on its rear and Elizabeth Spriggs revealed a quality of royal underwear.”
But the show went on. As it will in the new RSC from 2010.