Originally printed March 9, 2000
The Royal Shakespeare Company will premiere “Richard III” as part of its presentation of Shakespeare’s Histories. The marathon viewing of the cycle is not for the weak of heart: With nine hours of Shakespeare in one afternoon, the experience should be a rewarding one to those who take the challenge. University English Prof. Ralph Williams, who was in Stratford when RSC presented the Henry trilogy, said that “the audience came out feeling they had a profound experience that drew on them. Someone said ‘I expected to be tired, but I am not.’ It was very powerful, intense, but not an experience from which one emerges tired.”
The plays Henry VI, parts I, II and III and Richard III were written very early in Shakespeare’s career. A person with very little experience in Shakespeare would have a similar experience to those who saw the original plays performed. Williams says, “The plays make sense as dramas. These are challenges as reading experiences, but not as stage experiences.”
RSC’s first visit to Ann Arbor is the beginning of a five-year partnership. In addition to this visit, RSC will return again in 2003 and 2005. With the visits will come not only exceptional theater performances, but also educational opportunities for everyone. Events ranging from costume exhibits to the staging history will be covered in the seventy educational events taking place. The educational program is something the RSC does at home in London and while on tour; the program here at the University, however, is different than the program RSC usually runs.
Kate Hunter, RSC senior press and public relations officer, said, “What makes the work with the University of Michigan different is the scale of the educational program lasts over three months, and is not just around the performances. The scope of the program has two main strands, across the faculty in the University, and outreach/community work in the state. All RSC educational work is very practical, drawing heavily on the experience of performance. It usually involves members of the RSC acting company.”
Theater is very much part of the social process. Every performance has to have a cast, financial support, a theater to play in and an audience, which will shift with every performance. The RSC community education experience is directed so that many different audiences, such as those interested in the text, directing, stage-managing and costuming, can partake.
RSC Associate Director Michael Boyd directs all of the plays in the tetralogy debuting in Ann Arbor, and several people directed the first tetralogy of the eight-play cycle. “Michael Boyd wanted to direct all the plays that made up the second tetralogy because he sees them as four acts in a large play,” said Hunter. This will bring continuity to the tetralogy. Fiona Bell, who plays Joan of Arc and Queen Margaret, said, “the style and casting is cohesive.”
Nine hundred and seventy-nine hours of rehearsal for the 30 actors involved were needed to bring about the performance. Six weeks were spent on each part of the Henry cycle. “Spending four months with the company definitely made us gel together on and off stage. [It was] highly enjoyable and creative time for me.”
The histories, which cover a period of more than 50 years of England’s most turbulent history, begin with the reign of the nine-month-old Henry VI through England’s civil war. The production contains highly physical fight scenes, utilizing 25 swords and five pints of stage blood. Bell, who has individual sword fights as Joan of Arc, enjoys the fighting. “During rehearsals, I was told to keep my shoulders back and feet apart,” Bell said. “It’s not overwhelming, but if something goes wrong it throws you temporarily.”
The development of the five-year partnership between the University and RSC reflects a link between learning and theater. RSC will be able to use the partnership to model and build a more active university-based presence in the United States. RSC’s visit will mark the first time it has performed in Michigan since 1913. Bell, who will be visiting the States for the first time, “can’t wait to get involved in the community and educational work. As it’s a proper three week residency, it will be really intense, and everyone will be able to experience much more than the productions themselves.”
“Those who go will come to trust their ability to respond powerfully to a theatrical experience. In this society, Shakespeare is so frequently found in text. The eye is intolerant to deviation. To the ear, there is an immediacy to respond of which is very intelligible,” Bell said.
Williams sums up Shakespeare’s Histories by saying they are “staggeringly wonderful productions.”