RSC Literary Manager Pippa Hill discusses how the RSC’s work on stage engages with current affairs
Seven years into the RSC’s royal charter, in 1968, after a year of development and four months’ rehearsal, the Company opened a new show at the Aldwych Theatre in London entitled US. It was a stunningly controversial exploration into the impact of the Vietnam War on an entire generation.
In the introduction to the published playtext for the production, the Director, Peter Brook, explained the process by which they had come to make the show. He was clear that they had wholeheartedly rejected the temptation to create a piece of work that operated as a lecture or a vehicle for propaganda:
‘We are interested in a theatre of confrontation. In current events, what confronts what, who confronts who? In the case of Vietnam, it is reasonable to say that every one is concerned, yet no one is concerned: if everyone could hold in his mind through one single day both the horror of Vietnam and the normal life he is leading, the tension between the two would be intolerable. Is it possible, then, we ask ourselves to present for a moment to the spectator this contradiction, his own and his society’s contradiction? Is there any dramatic confrontation more complete than this? Is there any tragedy more inevitable and more terrifying?
We wanted actors to explore every aspect of this contradiction, so that instead of accusing or condoling an audience, they could be what an actor is always supposed to be, the audience’s representative, who is trained and prepared to go farther than the spectator, down a path the spectator knows to be his own.’
The production of US was followed by a dramatisation of The Oz Trial in 1971. An inflammatory court case in which three young publishers of a satirical magazine were prosecuted and imprisoned on obscenity charges, it was the longest obscenity trial in British legal history, and politically, it split the nation. All three of the accused were eventually acquitted of conspiring to corrupt public morals.
While US was created in response to an international political crisis and required its audience to identify with the reality of living through a brutal war, The Oz Trial tapped into a fundamental fault line in national politics and required its audience to listen to the facts without prejudice. Both caused huge controversy, but they both achieved their aim.
The RSC had nailed its colours to the mast. Not in terms of its political leaning, but as a Company for which politics and the urgent cares of the world are necessarily part of its DNA. What was happening in the world mattered then (whether we mean 1968, 1971 or 1606) and it matters now. It is part of how we understand and change ourselves and vitally, it must be explored, exposed and challenged.
This year, like every year, the RSC is commissioning, developing and producing work that tackles national and international questions of leadership and its impact on society, on all three of our stages. It is no coincidence that the summer season at The Other Place examined corrupt and authoritarian regimes alongside productions of Macbeth and The Duchess of Malfi over the road. Or that David Edgar is currently reworking one of his greatest plays for us, Maydays, which examines the political landscape of the 20th century through the lens of personal, lived experience. Maydays will open in The Other Place this autumn and will endeavour to re-examine our relationship with left- and right-wing politics from the perspective of the present day.
We are still not interested in using the theatre as a lecture hall, as a vehicle for propaganda. What concerns us is how to engage with contemporary events in a way that makes us stop, sit up and listen.