Artistic Director Gregory Doran on Shakespeare's contemporaries in the Swan Theatre.

The Swan Theatre opened in 1986, 30 years ago this weekend. Its brief was variously described as "to present the plays that inspired Shakespeare and which he inspired", or "to explore the repertoire from 1570-1750". It was a space which the company had long desired, in order to stage the plays of Shakespeare's contemporaries, the writers alongside whom he worked, and who shaped the plays he wrote.

Before the Swan

Before the Swan opened, thanks in large part to the generosity of the American philanthropist, Frederick Koch, this repertoire was largely confined to The Other Place. I remember wonderful productions of Massinger's A New Way to Pay Old Debts with Emrys James as Sir Giles Overeach; directed by Adrian Noble; Jonson's Volpone with Richard Griffiths directed by Bill Alexander; and Ford's Tis Pity She's a Whore with Simon Rouse, Barbara Kellerman, and Geoff Hutchings directed by Ron Daniels. Terry Hands directed Arden of Faversham with Jenny Agutter as Mrs Arden and Mark Rylance as the servant Michael; and Barry Kyle, responsible for many productions from this repertoire, directed Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy with Tom Wilkinson and Sinead Cusack; and Miriam Karlin as Mother Sawyer, The Witch of Edmonton.

Occasionally we risked playing non-Shakespeares from this period in the RST. Trevor Nunn directed a black and silver The Revenger's Tragedy in 1966, with Ian Richardson as Vindice and Alan Howard as a louche Lussurioso; and Helen Mirren played Moll Cutpurse in a riotous The Roaring Girl, in 1983.

The Swan Theatre's 30th birthday gives me the opportunity to look back at the repertoire of Shakespeare's contemporaries and recall some of the most significant productions. I'm going to review each of the most significant playwrights in turn.

group of men and women seated on wooden staging in burgundy opulent dress. Gregory Doran is perched above them on a banister
Gregory Doran seated on the bannister in Ben Jonson's The New Inn, 1987.
Joe Cocks Studio © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust – Image Licensing

Shakespeare's contemporaries

  • Ben Jonson

  • Christopher Marlowe

  • Thomas Middleton

  • John Webster

  • John Ford

  • Thomas Dekker

  • John Fletcher

Jacobethan Season

Adrian Noble allowed me to put together a season of lesser known plays from this period which we called the Jacobethan Season (Jacobethan was a term coined by John Betjeman in the 1930's to describe Renaissance revival architecture in the 1820's). I was delighted to direct another Fletcher play, this time a travel play called The Island Princess. We programmed it alongside a play from the Shakespeare Apocrypha (Edward III), a City Comedy (Jonson, Chapman and Marston's Eastward Ho!) a revenge drama (Marston's The Malcontent) and a Roman play (Massinger's The Roman Actor). The season was presented on Shaftesbury Avenue by Thelma Holt with Bill Kenwright, and won an Olivier Award for outstanding achievement in 2002.

Three years later, in 2005, under Michael Boyd I grouped another series of Jacobethan plays together under the title The Gunpowder Season. We presented the apocryphal Thomas More, Middleton's The Old Law, and Massinger's Believe as You List (retitled Believe What You Will), as well as one of Ben Jonson's only two tragedies, Sejanus.

Other rarities

And there have been a number of other one-off rarities presented in the Swan over the last three decades. Trevor Nunn directed Heywood's The Fair Maid of the West in the opening season with Imelda Staunton as Bess; Michael Boyd directed a powerful production of Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy in 1997 with Siobhan Redmond as Bel-imperia and Peter Wight as Hieronimo; Barry Kyle directed Fiona Shaw and Alex Jennings in Shirley's Hyde Park, transposing the action to the post Great War Bloomsbury set. And Phyllida Lloyd directed Shadwell's The Virtuoso with a cast including Hugh Bonneville and Guy Henry. Max Stafford-Clark directed Richard Brome's The Jovial Crew in 1992.

Scholars' Pitch

"Why haven't you done Hengist, King of Kent?"  Having championed the repertoire of Shakespeare's contemporaries for many years, I often get people demanding to know why we haven't yet tackled certain plays. So a couple of years ago we decided to do something about it.

We brought together four academics to consider their favourite choices of what they would like to see performed in the Swan. The four plays they each pitched were then read and tried out by four different groups of actors, each with a director attached. At the end of the week each team picked their favourite play. It was a fascinating list including Lording Barry's Ram Alley, Marston's The Insatiate Countess, Middelton's A Mad Couple Well Matched, Shirley's The Cardinal, and the one eventually chosen for production Ford's Love's Sacrifice.

But there are plenty of plays still to do. We have largely neglected the Elizabethan playwrights.  Robert Greene for example. What about Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, or Orlando Furioso (based on Ariosto's epic) or A Looking Glass for London (which he wrote with Thomas Lodge) recounting the biblical story of Jonah and the fall of Nineveh.

Nobody has cracked George Peele, (the intriguing The Old Wife's Tale, or King David and Bethsabe). And we haven't touched John Lyly. Endymion, or Gallathea are both worth an outing.

Since Trevor Nunn opened the Swan with The Fair Maid of the West, we have attempted no other of Heywood's plays, although Katie Mitchell did an evocative production of A Woman Killed with Kindnessin TOP in 1991. But we have a secret weapon. Martin Wiggins at the Shakespeare Institute regularly attempts readings of not only rare plays but entire canons of particular playwrights, and from his recent Heywood exploration The Captives is certainly on the cards.

And another great resource is the work of Perry Mills at King Edward's, Shakespeare's school here in Stratford-upon-Avon, whose Edwards Boys annually present plays which were written for the boys’ companies in Shakespeare's day, "The little eyasses" as they are called in Hamlet. It's been wonderful to see them grow in confidence through presenting works such as Marston's Antonio's Revenge, Lyly's Gallathea, and Dekker and Webster's Westward Ho! or Francis Beaumont’s The Woman Hater.

So, onward to the next 30 years, and both more discoveries of Shakespeare's vivacious contemporaries, and regular revivals of some of the greatest hits of the period, alongside our new work, and revivals of other classics. The Swan is much loved, both by audiences and acting companies. I think it must rank simply as one of the greatest theatre spaces in the world.

Gregory Doran
November 2016

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