The Royal Shakespeare Company’s plans for the summer 2014 season have just been released and mailings are being received by members. It’s Artistic Director Gregory Doran’s first full season, and he continues to carry out his promise to perform the entire canon of Shakespeare’s plays over a period of six years. Richard II, currently in rehearsal, is the first in the series, to be followed next year by Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The beauty of this idea is that, as he states in the RSC Members News, that “a young person going into secondary school now should, by the time they leave school, have the opportunity to have seen every Shakespeare play, either in Stratford-upon-Avon, on tour, or through our live screenings at their local cinema.” Casting for the Henry IV plays includes Jasper Britton as the King, Alex Hassell as Prince Hal, and Antony Sher as Falstaff.
Sher last appeared with the RSC as Prospero in The Tempest, and he’s certainly played his fair share of serious Shakespearean roles like Macbeth and Leontes. It will be great to see him making more use of his talent for comedy: his Richard III was both funny and threatening, and Tartuffe was unpleasantly wily as well as hilarious.
None of the plays being produced in the first year are among Shakespeare’s most popular. The Two Gentlemen of Verona was last seen on the main stage in a shortened version in an unlikely-sounding double bill with Titus Andronicus in 1981. It was thought that neither could attract a large enough audience for the big theatre, though since then Titus Andronicus has been gaining in popularity. Like Richard II, all three of the 2014 plays will be shown Live from Stratford-upon-Avon at cinemas worldwide, and in schools.
There are new education initiatives, including a schools version of The Taming of the Shrew and a chance for schools to join the “Young Shakespeare Nation revolution”.
Some of the most interesting programming, though, takes place in the Swan. Going back to the theatre’s original aim to investigate plays written by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman is staging a season called Roaring Girls of plays containing meaty roles for women, with upcoming female directors.
The first play is The Roaring Girl itself, a Jacobean city comedy by Dekker and Middleton. Moll Cutpurse is a cross-dressing independent London woman who successfully ignores convention. It’s a wonderful role and was last played for the RSC in 1983 by Helen Mirren. The play was performed at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre for a short season before a Barbican transfer and featured a strong cast including David Waller, Jonathan Hyde and David Troughton. The director will be Jo Davies.
The next play will be the drama Arden of Faversham, based on the true story of a famous murder that took place in 1551. Thomas Arden and his wife Alice were wealthy and moved in influential circles adding to the public interest in the case. Arden was murdered in his own house on the orders of Alice and her lover Mosbie. After a number of bungled attempts the assassins Black Will and Shakebag (there’s got to be a Shakespeare joke in there) successfully carry out the murder. The RSC did a production in 1970 at the Roundhouse with Dorothy Tutin playing Alice and Emrys James played Arden, but I remember the dark humour of the 1982 production at The Other Place in which Bruce Purchase played Arden and Jenny Agutter played Alice. Black Will and Shakebag were pantomime villains played with relish by John Bowe and David Bradley while a young Mark Rylance memorably played the servant Michael. The play was published anonymously, as most plays were in 1592. It will be directed by Polly Findlay.
The season’s finale shifts to Italy where John Webster’s play The White Devil is a bloody tragedy full of violence, infidelity and deceit. This play’s previous RSC production was also in the Swan, in 1996, when Jane Gurnett played Vittoria and Ray Fearon Bracchiano. The production is being directed by Maria Aberg whose recent credits with the RSC include last year’s King John and this year’s As You Like It.