RSC Open Day
If you thought the Wars of the Roses were pretty dirty, you should have seen the football match.
Almost 522 years after the battle of Bosworth, the houses of Lancaster and York clashed again at the RSC’s Open Day on April 29 and tried once more to kick each other to bits. No swords and chain mail this time, just natty red and white shirts.
The first brawl erupted in the Yorkist goal mouth after just 11 minutes. Quite why was not entirely obvious; neither was the score. It seemed to be 4-4 at full-time, with Lancaster apparently winning on penalties.The match was played in the theatre gardens on a smallish pitch by teams who liked biggish kicks, so the ball spent some time in the Avon and was rescued once by a gallant Lancastrian who went swimming and then shivered on the touchline.
It’s unfair to pick out names but the Duke of York played a blinder in his family’s net and Henry VI’s stylish goal prompted a mass Lancastrian love-in.
Others, however, are best described (to quote Kent in Lear) as rather base football players.
The score was similarly difficult to follow at the Great Shakespeare Quiz, the climax of the open day. Two teams (Forest of Arden and Illyria, each made up of six RSC luminaries) competed in the Courtyard with more vicious wit but less violence than the footballers.
Sir Anthony Sher was discreetly dapper but the other two theatrical knights present had dressed for the occasion: Sir Ian McKellen, in white coat and Macbeth tartan tie, looked like a distinguished pharmacist, and hyper-active quizmaster Giles Brandreth suggested that Sir Donald Sinden’s orange jacket had strayed in from a remake of Hi-de-Hi!
David Warner couldn’t remember who played Bottom in the production of the Dream in which he played Lysander (or was it Demetrius?) and Judi Dench muddled Mickey Rooney and James Cagney. Forest of Arden probably won but it was hard to be sure. The audience knew most the answers and scored lots of points.
The open day was the biggest yet, with thousands of people flowing between the marquees near Holy Trinity, the theatres and the various spaces at Cox’s Yard.
With careful planning, you could, all in one day, learn to fight, be part of the crowd for Julius Caesar, take in a backstage tour, write a play, dress up in doublet and hose, argue in Shakespearean rhetoric, slap on some make-up or glide across the river on the chain ferry while listening to a sonnet.
There were more formal events too, with the Courtyard packed out for a two-hour session in which John Barton worked with Judi Dench and Ian McKellen on the mini-dramas of the sonnets. Harriet Walter and Patrick Stewart, last year’s Cleopatra and Antony, returned to talk about their relationship with Shakespeare, Michael Boyd (the RSC’s artistic director) joined others in an attempt to define ensemble theatre and Michael Wood led a discussion on how Shakespeare travels once he leaves Britain.
In the Swan, Jonathan Bate discussed the new edition of the complete works he has edited with Eric Rasmussen and had a sad message for any parent in the audience with a child named Imogen. "We are convinced that you have named your daughter after a misprint," he said.
Bate conceded it was a lovely name but Shakespeare called his heroine in Cymbeline Innogen. A printer had caused the confusion by mistaking the two Ns in the text before him for an M. Innogen, with its obvious suggestion of innocence, fits with the names of other characters (Miranda, Perdita) in the late plays. Bate used three professional actors and two roped in from the audience to show how a line moved from one character to another in Much Ado changes the moment when Beatrice and Benedick stop each other’s mouths with a kiss.
Asked about Shakespeare’s rude bits, Bate admitted his was probably the raunchiest edition yet. "A close reference to some of the footnotes could lead to certain states in the southern United States banning it," he added.
The whole day had a special feel because it was the end of an era: this was positively the last time an audience would sit in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s auditorium in the form it is now. Soon the builders will move in to transform it into a Courtyard-style space, so now was the time to say goodbye.
There were certainly a few tears at a concert in which the RSC band, conducted by past and present directors, played music from productions ranging from to Peter Hall’s 1959 Dream with a score by Raymond Leppard to last year’s Merry Wives – The Musical with music by Paul Englishby.
So many plays, so many tunes, some of the best in Nigel Hess’s wistful score for Terry Hands’s 1982 Much Ado with Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack. The concert ended with a massed chorus (including the Lanacstrians’ goalie) singing Hand In Hand by Guy Woolfenden from Trevor Nunn’s famous 1976 Comedy of Errors with Judi Dench and Michael Williams.
There was more nostalgia high in the Swan, where visitors were invited to write down their memories, some of them particularly intense. "In 1945, I saw my first play in the Memorial Theatre which was Romeo and Juliet with Laurence Payne and Daphne Slater," read one. "I wonder what I would think of it now. Then it was the most wonderful experience of my life."
Someone else made her first visit in 1949 when, aged 13, she came on a school trip to see Julius Caesar. "The theatre, and especially Shakespeare, have been very important in my life – perhaps fantasy life – and now in my 70th year perhaps more important than ever."
A couple saw Much Ado while on their honeymoon in 1939 and still have the programme, and Audrey Spencer, a member of the RST front of house staff for 25 years, told of seeing David Warner in Hamlet on November 6 1965. She met Peter, an RST stage hand, on a blind date after the show and later married him; the couple, one helping to produce an illusion, the other entranced by it, have remained married for 40 years.
What a story: Shakespeare would have loved it.