The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is a major British theatre company, based in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England. The company employs over 1,000 staff and produces around 20 productions a year. The RSC plays regularly in London, Stratford-upon-Avon, and on tour across the UK and internationally.
The company's home is in Stratford-upon-Avon, where it has redeveloped its Royal Shakespeare and Swan theatres as part of a £112.8-million "Transformation" project. The theatres re-opened in November 2010, having closed in 2007. The new buildings attracted 18,000 visitors within the first week and received a positive media response both upon opening, and following the first full Shakespeare performances. Performances in Stratford-upon-Avon continued throughout the Transformation project at the temporary Courtyard Theatre.
As well as the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, the RSC produces new work from living artists and develops creative links with theatre-makers from around the world, as well as working with teachers to inspire a lifelong love of William Shakespeare in young people and running events for everyone to explore and participate in its work.
The RSC celebrated its fiftieth birthday season from April-December 2011, with two companies of actors presenting the first productions designed specifically for the new Royal Shakespeare and Swan Theatre stages. The 2011-season began with performances of Macbeth and a re-imagined lost play The History of Cardenio. The fiftieth birthday season also featured The Merchant of Venice with Sir Patrick Stewart and revivals of some of the RSC's greatest plays, including a new staging of Marat/Sade. For the London 2012 Festival as part of the Cultural Olympiad, the RSC produced the World Shakespeare Festival, featuring artists from across the world performing in venues around the UK. In 2013, the company began live screenings of its Shakespeare productions - called Live from Stratford-upon-Avon - which are screened around the world. In 2016, the company collaborated with Intel and The Imaginarium Studios to stage The Tempest, bringing performance capture to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre for the first time.
There have been theatrical performances in Stratford-upon-Avon since at least Shakespeare's day, though the first recorded performance of a play written by Shakespeare himself was in 1746 when Parson Joseph Greene, master of Stratford Grammar School, organised a charitable production to fund the restoration of Shakespeare's funerary monument. John Ward's Birmingham-based company, the Warwickshire Company of Comedians, agreed to perform it. A surviving copy of the playbill records that the company performed Othello. The first building erected to commemorate Shakespeare was David Garrick's Jubilee Pavilion in 1769, and there have been at least 17 buildings used to perform Shakespeare's plays since.
The first permanent commemorative building to Shakespeare's works in the town was a theatre built in 1827, in the gardens of New Place, but has long since been demolished. The RSC's history began with the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, which was the brainchild of a local brewer, Charles Edward Flower. He donated a 2-acre (0.81 ha) site by the River Avon and in 1875 launched an international campaign to build a theatre in the town of Shakespeare's birth. The theatre, a Victorian-Gothic building seating just over 700 people, opened on 23 April 1879, with a performance of Much Ado About Nothing, a title which gave ammunition to several critics.
The Memorial, a red brick Gothic cathedral, designed by Dodgshun and Unsworth of Westminster, was unkindly described by Bernard Shaw as "an admirable building, adaptable to every purpose except that of a theatre." From 1919, under the direction of William Bridges-Adams and after a slow start, its resident New Shakespeare Company became one of the most prestigious in Britain. The theatre received a Royal Charter of Incorporation in 1925, which gave it status.
On the afternoon of 6 March 1926, when a new season was about to commence rehearsals, smoke was seen. Fire broke out, and the mass of half-timbering chosen to ornament the interior provided dry tinder. By the following morning the theatre was a blackened shell. The company transferred its Shakespeare festivals to a converted local cinema. Fund-raising began for the rebuilding of the theatre, with generous donations arriving from philanthropists in America.
In January 1928, following an open competition, 29-year-old Elisabeth Scott was unanimously appointed architect for the new theatre which became the first important work erected in the United Kingdom from the designs of a woman architect. George Bernard Shaw commented that her design was the only one that showed any theatre sense. Her modernist plans for an art deco structure came under fire from many directions but the new building was opened triumphantly on William Shakespeare's birthday, 23 April 1932. Later it came under the direction of Sir Barry Jackson in 1945, Anthony Quayle from 1948 to 1956 and Glen Byam Shaw 1957-1959, with an impressive roll-call of actors. Scott's building, with some minor adjustments to the stage, remained in constant use until 2007 when it was closed for a major refit of the interior.
1932 - New Shakespeare Memorial Theatre opens, abutting the remains of the old.
1961 - Chartered name of the corporation and the Stratford theatre becomes 'Royal Shakespeare.'
1974 - The Other Place opened, created from a prefabricated former store/rehearsal room in Stratford.
1986 - The Swan Theatre opened, created from the shell of the 1879 Memorial Theatre.
1991 - Purpose-built new Other Place, designed by Michael Reardon, opens.
September 2004 - The vision for the renewal of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre transformation is announced.
July 2006 - The Courtyard Theatre opens with a staging of Michael Boyd's Histories.
November 2010 - The Royal Shakespeare and Swan Theatres re-open following their transformation.
March 2016 - The Other Place was reinstated as a 200-seat studio theatre.
In 1959, while still the director-designate of the Memorial Theatre, Peter Hall announced that the formation of a permanent company would be a primary objective. David Addenbrooke wrote of Hall's belief that Shakespeare, more than any other dramatist, needed a 'style', a tradition and unity of direction and acting. On 14 January 1960, Hall's first policy statement as director also proposed the acquisition of a second theatre, in London, to be used as a city outlet for selected Stratford productions. The RSC was formally established on 20 March 1961 with the royal announcement that the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre would henceforth be known as the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the company as the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The critic Michael Billington, summarising these events, wrote: "In 1960 the twenty-nine-year-old Peter Hall formally took charge at Stratford-upon-Avon and set about turning a star-laden, six-month Shakespeare festival into a monumental, year-round operation built around a permanent company, a London base and contemporary work from home and abroad. Looking back, it is difficult to realise just how radical Hall's dream was at the time; or indeed how much opposition there was to the creation of what became officially known in March 1961 as the Royal Shakespeare Company."
John Barton had been appointed associate director in January 1960, and was followed in 1962 by Michel Saint-Denis, Peter Brook and Clifford Williams who joined the company as resident directors. John Bury was appointed head of design in 1964. The repertoire was also widened to take in modern work and classics other than Shakespeare.
In 1962, strong opposition to the establishment of a London base for the RSC came from the Royal National Theatre which - led by Viscount Chandos and Laurence Olivier - wished to be the sole subsidised company operating in London. Following a deal with Prince Littler, managing director of Associated Theatre Properties, the RSC established the Aldwych Theatre as its London base for productions transferred from Stratford to London, its stage redesigned to match the RST's apron stage.
Twenty years later, in the summer of 1982, the company took up London residence in both the Barbican Theatre and The Pit studio space in the Barbican Centre under the auspices of the City of London. The RSC was closely involved in the design of these two venues. In 2002 it left the Barbican after a series of allegedly poor seasons, partly because the then artistic director Adrian Noble wanted to develop the company's touring performances. His decision means the company has no regular London home.
The RSC had first tackled its need for a small auditorium in 1971. At the insistence of Sir Trevor Nunn (who had taken over as artistic director in 1968), the company hired The Place off the Euston Road in London and constructed its own theatre space for an audience of 330, seated on raked wooden benches. Two seasons of plays were staged in 1972 and 1973, none suitable for the Aldwych. In December 1973 Buzz Goodbody, the company's first female director, drew up a plan for what would become The Other Place studio theatre in Stratford, designed by Michael Reardon to seat 140 people, which opened to a first and highly successful season in 1974. The name chosen for the new studio space was favoured within the company because it implied an alternative theatre, but also because it is a quotation from Hamlet.
In August 1976, Nunn staged Macbeth with a minimalist set at The Other Place, playing for 2 hours 15 minutes without an interval. The small, nearly round stage focused attention on the psychological dynamics of the characters. Both Ian McKellen in the title role and Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth received exceptionally favourable reviews. The production transferred to London, opening at the Donmar Warehouse in September 1977 before its further transfer to the larger Young Vic venue for a two-month season. It was also recorded for transmission by Thames Television. In 2004, members of the RSC voted Dench's performance the greatest by an actress in the history of the company.
Summing up this triumphant period, The Guardian critic Michael Billington later wrote: "[In 1977] the RSC struck gold. This was, in fact, the perihelion of Trevor Nunn's ten-year reign as the company's sole Artistic Director and Chief Executive (in 1978 he began to share power with Terry Hands). In London, the company opened a new studio space at the Donmar Warehouse with plays by Barker, Taylor, Bond and Brecht. Its Aldwych repertory combined the usual Stratford transfers with Nichol's Privates on Parade, Ibsen's Pillars of the Community and Brecht's The Days of the Commune. At the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Terry Hands and actor Alan Howard had a marathon year working on Henry V, a virtually uncut, Henry VI, part 1, Henry VI, part 2 and Henry VI, part 3 and Coriolanus. And the action at The Other Place included Jonson, Ford, Musset, Gems and Rudkin. No other company in the world could match that output for quantity and quality".
Nunn and Hands were joint artistic directors of the RSC when the company opened The Swan, its third theatre in Stratford. The Swan Theatre, also designed by Michael Reardon, has a deep thrust stage and a galleried, intimate 450-capacity auditorium. The space was to be dedicated to playing the works of Shakespeare's contemporaries, the works of European writers and the occasional work of Shakespeare. The theatre was launched on 8 May 1986 with a production of The Two Noble Kinsmen by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher (not published until 1634 and thought to be Shakespeare's last work for the stage). It was directed by Barry Kyle.
In 1598, Philip Henslowe, Shakespeare's impresario, made an inventory of his company's props: 'along with numerous weapons and crowns, there was a boar's head, a wooden leg, a golden fleece and the cauldron in which Marlowe's Jew of Malta is boiled to death.'
The RSC's costume department is 'the largest in-house costume-making workshop in British theatre' and 'world-renowned'. In 2021, the RSC raised over £8 million for a project to update the costume and prop department. Alistair McArthur, head of costume, called the old working space "Dickensian" and added, "If we knew there was rain coming we'd have to clear everything off the table the night before."
Nunn (who had been appointed to follow Hall's tenure at the National Theatre in 1968) ceded his RSC executive directorship in 1986 to his co-artistic director Terry Hands, who bore the brunt of media hostility during a difficult few years for the company. Hands took the decision to suspend the RSC's residency at The Barbican Theatre and The Pit during the winter season of 1990-91, thus vacating the capital for the first time in 30 years. This was seen as essential if the RSC was to secure an increase in subsidy from the Arts Council.
Shortly after that decision Adrian Noble returned to the RSC to take over from Hands as artistic director and chief executive. The company had serious funding problems. Noble's decision to sever all RSC connections with the Barbican Centre, funded by the Corporation of the City of London, was widely condemned, and towards the end of his tenure things began to go terribly wrong, partly through his pursuit and support of the so-called Project Fleet, a radical scheme aimed at rescuing the RSC from its financial crisis by replacing the Royal Shakespeare Theatre with a crowd-pleasing 'Shakespeare Village' and streamlining the company's performance structure and ensemble principle.
None of Noble's plans came to fruition. He left the job, an unhappy man, in March 2003. Michael Boyd then assumed control of the RSC, now burdened with a deficit of £2.8 million. By a combination of artistic excellence and quiet husbandry, including a year-long Complete Works of Shakespeare Festival (begun in April 2006 in collaboration with other theatre companies) plus a financially successful London season at the Novello Theatre in 2006, Boyd slowly rebuilt the company's fortunes and reputation
In 2007 he launched the long-awaited Stratford theatre redevelopments, including construction of the temporary Courtyard Theatre while work was in progress, designed to house his RSC Histories cycle before its transfer to the Roundhouse in London in 2008. Talking of these achievements with typical modesty he told the Evening Standard in December 2007 ('The Man Who Remade the RSC'): "There was a bit of gardening to do, but we are now beginning to show signs of walking the walk." 'The Histories' ensemble went on to win three Olivier awards in 2009. In addition, that same year the RSC commissioned a completely new edition of Shakespeare's First Folio, titled "William Shakespeare Complete Works" and published by Modern Library.
To provide balance, Simon Trowbridge in A Royal Shakespeare Company Book, published in 2017, is highly critical of aspects of the Boyd years, including his decision to redevelop the Royal Shakespeare Theatre as a second Swan Theatre.
The RSC is the sole British member theatre of the Union of the Theatres of Europe.
In March 2008, the RSC launched a manifesto 'Stand up for Shakespeare', a campaign to promote a positive experience of Shakespeare for children and young people. The tenets of this manifesto, Do It on Your Feet, See It Live, Start It Earlier form the basis of the work of the Education department.
In 2010, the RSC opened a new suite of education spaces on Waterside.
In 2011, BP began to subsidised the RSC's £5 ticket scheme for 16 to 25-year-olds.
In summer 2011 the company undertook a residency in Park Avenue Armory, New York, running a series of performances and an accompanying education programme in partnership with the NYC Department of Education.
In 2012, the RSC produced the World Shakespeare Festival, a celebration of 'Shakespeare as the world's playwright' working with UK and international arts organisations, and including the Globe to Globe Festival by Shakespeare's Globe. The same year, planning permission was granted by Stratford District Council to reinstate The Other Place. Funding for the new theatre came from a £3 million grant from the Arts Council England, raised through the National Lottery. Funding was also received from the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, The Backstage Trust, and from public donations; this is the final phase of the Transformation project.
Live from Stratford-upon-Avon, a new project to broadcast the company's productions in cinemas around the world and stream them into schools was announced in May 2013. The project began with Shakespeare's Richard II, starring David Tennant, in November 2013, and followed up with Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and The Two Gentlemen of Verona in 2014.
In February 2016, Artistic Director Gregory Doran's productions of Henry IV Part I & Henry IV Part II, and Henry V went on tour in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong as part of the King & Country Tour. The same year, the Royal Shakespeare Company also opened their first permanent exhibition, entitled The Play's The Thing.
On 23 April 2016, the RSC performed a one night extravaganza, called 'Shakespeare Live!'. Broadcast on BBC Two from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, it marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's Death. It involved a collection of Shakespeare scenes and monologues with appearances from David Tennant, Catherine Tate, Dame Judi Dench, Benedict Cumberbatch and even one from Prince Charles.
In October 2019, the RSC announced that it would be ending its partnership with BP at the end of year following criticism of its association with the oil company. A week before, school students threatened to boycott the theatre company if it did not sever links with the firm. A spokesperson for the RSC explained that "Young people are now saying clearly to us that the BP sponsorship is putting a barrier between them and their wish to engage with the RSC'.
The RSC has three permanent theatres in Stratford-upon-Avon:
The Courtyard Theatre was built as a temporary replacement for The Other Place theatre to house the Company's work when the RST and Swan were closed for the Transformation project. It provided a full-scale working prototype for the new RST's auditorium, seating 1,045 people around a thrust stage. It was also used in 2012 for productions in the World Shakespeare Festival including Much Ado About Nothing in an Indian setting. The Courtyard Theatre was replaced by The Other Place, which was reinstated as a 200-seat studio theatre in 2016. In July 2021, a temporary 500-seat outdoor theatre was built in the Swan Gardens named the Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre. The theatre was built due to the COVID-19 pandemic to allow productions to return following the Government guidance, beginning with Phillip Breen's production of The Comedy of Errors running during summer 2021.
The company's London presence has included tenancies of the Aldwych Theatre, The Place in Duke's Road, Euston, the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden, the Barbican Theatre and The Pit at the Barbican Centre in the City of London. There have also been seasons at The Mermaid Theatre, the Almeida Theatre (1988 and 1989), the Roundhouse in Camden, the Young Vic, the Playhouse Theatre, the Novello Theatre and the Gielgud Theatre.
Adrian Noble, the Royal Shakespeare Company's artistic director, wants to demolish the main, unloved theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and replace it with a £100m theatre village