Less Shakespeare in RSC renaissance

· Half of performances staged to be new plays
· Artistic director wants an 'old-fashioned company'
The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications column, Thursday November 23 2006
The RSC has not been presenting "every word [Shakespeare] wrote", as we said in the article below. It is the Complete Works Festival - not a word about "complete words".

The Royal Shakespeare Company, keeper of the flame of the greatest playwright ever, plans to "knock Shakespeare off his podium", according to artistic director Michael Boyd, by increasing the proportion of new plays it stages to half of its total work.

"What is distinctive about the Royal Shakespeare Company is the relationship between the Renaissance and writing now," said Mr Boyd. "What excites me is the tension line between the 16th century and the present. New plays are more important than classical revivals."

The playwrights Marina Carr, Leo Butler and Roy Williams have all been recently commissioned by the RSC. But in a more far-reaching move, writers will be "embedded" within the company. The first of these, Adriano Shaplin, will be working with the actors who are preparing Shakespeare's history plays, all eight of which will be in the repertoire by spring 2008. The idea is for authors to write plays with a specific ensemble in mind, just as Shakespeare did. "It's a radical idea; but it is also our heritage," Mr Boyd said.

He hopes that the New Works festival, which is the present chief conduit for new plays staged by the RSC, will eventually "be rendered redundant as new work is sewn firmly into our repertoire".

Mr Boyd also said that his aim of reviving the notion of an old-fashioned ensemble company - rather than employing actors on short-term contracts as has become common practice in recent years - was becoming a reality.

"Our company of actors have committed to us for 2½ years," he said. "The received wisdom is that actors don't want to do that. I think that's tosh." Some actors working on the history plays have been part of the company for five years, and could remain until at least 2008, when the whole cycle is up and running. Mr Boyd confirmed that the cycle will play in London as well as Stratford, and is planning a tour to the US.

He was speaking as the Complete Works festival reaches its halfway mark. It had, he said, been an unqualified success, already making 80% of its budget, with £8.5m taken at the box office and 450,000 tickets sold. He estimated that there had been 100,000 new visitors to the RSC.

"My favourite thing about the Complete Works festival is that it has been an agent of growth and change for the RSC," he said. "It is helping us examine and develop our own work and change the way we run our organisation."

One of the chief changes was the company's relationship with its audience, he said, exemplified by the Courtyard Theatre, which will become the RSC's main stage in Stratford when the Royal Shakespeare Theatre closes for refurbishment in March. The Courtyard has a "thrust" stage, with the action in and among the audience.

The redeveloped RST, which should open in 2010, will be based on the Courtyard Theatre. Vikki Heywood, the RSC's executive director, confirmed that 87% of the funds had been raised, and it confidently expected to raise the balance of the £100m budget.


Charlotte Higgins, arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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