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The Royal Shakespeare Company

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The Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Despite being one of the most famous theatre companies in the world, the Royal Shakespeare Company - also known as the RSC - is a relatively modern phenomenon. It has been the training ground for many of Britain's famous actors. Indeed, it has drawn many actors from around the world to its hallowed productions. For us to find out how, or why, the RSC became established, we need to step back to the time of the great bard himself.

Theatrical Troupes

In 1559, Elizabeth I set up a proclamation that all players were to be licensed. Thus, the earlier informal troupes of travelling players were disbanded and became the new touring 'companies'. Such companies were to receive the patronage of those at court, which also allowed the more prosperous to invest in the new playhouses of the mid-to-late 16th Century.

At this time, actors were known as 'players'; there were no actresses. Female roles were played by boys who were either apprenticed to the companies or beginning their careers as Children of the Royal Chapel. Most leading actors were also known as 'sharers'. Sharers received profits from the performances and were responsible for the assets of the company. Most other players were paid an agreed fixed rate for their performance.

For a playwright to succeed in Elizabethan times, he would need to find a company of performers. The sharers would listen to the plot and, if they liked the idea, offer a down payment for the play to be completed.

William Shakespeare, having found a group of players with whom he could work closely - The Lord Chamberlain's Men - would have personalised each actor's script, taking into account their personality and acting techniques. Each part was written on parchment and handed only to the actor playing that role. Until rehearsals, nobody would be any the wiser how their part would turn out.

Rehearsals focuses on planning costumes and cues. At no point was a script written with 'enter stage left'. All such decisions were made at the rehearsals, which must have put a lot of pressure on the entire company should decisions be changed abruptly.

Richard Burbage was the Chamberlain's leading man; renowned for his excellent memory. Shakespeare created the parts of Richard III and Hamlet for him. As the actor aged, Shakespeare gave him more mature parts, including the ageing Othello.

The Chamberlain's Men

This theatrical company was originally under the patronage of Lord Strange until his death in 1594. The cousin and Chamberlain of Elizabeth I, Henry Carey, reorganised the company, with Burbage and Shakespeare among the players. When Carey died in 1595, the company's name changed. As his son George took up the patronage, it became known as the Lord Hunsdon's Men. This continued until 1597 when George Carey, Lord Hunsdon, became the Chamberlain to the Royal Court. The name the 'Chamberlain's Men' returned to the theatrical circle.

At this time, the company performed at the theatre built at Shoreditch in 1576 by James Burbage. This was an amphitheatre with three tiers of galleries and a covered stage. James Burbage ran the theatre until his death in 1597. In this same period the lease on the site also expired. The Burbage family - including James' player son, Richard - dismantled the theatre and rebuilt it under the name the Globe. In the meantime the company used the Curtain, until it moved to the newly built Globe in 1599.

Just prior to his death, James Burbage also purchased the Blackfriars indoor theatre, in 1596. This playhouse was built in 1576 for the Children of the Royal Chapel. Burbage began to convert it into a playhouse for the Chamberlain's Men, but, following local objections, it was again leased to a company of boy players. When this company disbanded his son Richard quickly took control by putting in a syndicate of players to run the playhouse. The Blackfriars became the winter theatre of the Chamberlain's Men, with the Globe being used for the summer season.

The King's Men

The King's Men were fast becoming the leading theatrical company in London. Shakespeare must have been a prominent figure and certainly a sharer of the company, as in 1603 King James I became its patron. The new company of 'The King's Men' was created with letters of patent:

William Shakespeare… and the rest of theire Assosiates freely to use and exercise the Arte and faculty of playinge Comedies Tragedies histories Enterludes moralls pastoralls Stageplaies and suche others like as theie have alreadie studied or hereafter shall use or studie as well for the recreation of our livinge Subjectes as for our Solace and pleasure when wee shall thincke good to see them duringe our pleasure...

After the death of Shakespeare in 1616, his fellow sharers and leading players, John Heminge and Henry Condell, kept the scripts safe and became responsible for the first folio edition of Shakespeare's plays being printed in 1623.

Under the royal patronage of James I, then later Charles I, the company continued with great success until 1642 when the English Civil War forced the closure of all theatres. For a further 18 years the theatres remained closed under the rule of the Puritans:

Whereas… the distracted estate of England, threatened with a cloud of blood by a civil war, calls for all pallible means go appease and avert the wrath of God, … it is therefore thought fit and ordained by the Lords and Commons in this Parliament assembled, that … public stage plays shall cease and be forborne.

The monarchy was reinstated in 1660. With Charles II on the throne, the theatres re-opened and 'The King's Men' returned, only this time women were allowed to perform on stage, too.


It is perhaps most fitting that the work of Shakespeare is acknowledged with great pride in his home town. In 1875 a local brewer, Charles Flower, began a campaign to establish a theatre promoting the works of Shakespeare. Flower's generosity in donating the two-acre site for the purpose has ensured it is one of the most famous in Britain.

The Gothic building of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre opened in 1879 with the performance of Much Ado About Nothing. The theatre was drawing interest from all quarters. By 1907, stars of the stage became a leading attraction, so the month-long 'summer season' began.

Royal Charter

In recognition of 50 years of excellent performances, the theatre was granted a Royal Charter in 1925. Unfortunately, a year later fire ripped through the building, totally destroying the theatre.

In the best tradition of any theatre, 'the show must go on'! The director William Bridges-Adams used the local cinema to continue the productions. At the same time he established a campaign that went worldwide to raise funds to build a new theatre.

The architect Elizabeth Scott designed the building, and on the anniversary of Shakespeare's birthday the new Shakespeare Memorial Theatre was opened by the Prince of Wales, on 23 April, 1932.

The modern Royal Shakespeare Company was formed in 1960. The director Peter Hall renamed the Memorial Theatre the 'Royal Shakespeare Theatre' in 1961.

After celebrating its 75th anniversary, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre closed its doors in 2007 to enable it to be totally rebuilt within the Gothic shell. To facilitate the changes, the RSC moved across to the 'Courtyard Theatre' until the planned re-opening in 2010.

The Swan Theatre

This small theatre was completed in 1986, built alongside the wall of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It was designed by the British architect Michael Reardon, who is not only an exterior designer but a historic building consultant and interior designer, which made him a good choice for keeping things in line with the historic structure's limitations.

The Swan has an intimate 430-seat auditorium with its galleries, giving the audience a very intimate view of the deep-thrust stage. With its modern sound system and lighting, this theatre is dedicated to the contemporaries of Shakespeare and the works of European writers. Although Shakespeare's works are sometimes performed there - as on 8 May, 1986, when the theatre opened with Shakespeare and John Fletcher's The Two Noble Kinsmen.

The Swan theatre was also temporarily closed in 2007 while work was being carried out on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

This is one of the world's most iconic theatrical sites. It represents a mix of Shakespearean performance, history and biography that's unique. Our challenge is to marry the best elements of the existing buildings with the brief we've outlined for the auditorium, backstage and audience facilities.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity both for the RSC and Stratford-upon-Avon. We need the help of all our supporters to realise our vision.
- Sir Christopher Bland, chairman

The London Season

The London 'Season' would originally begin when Parliament was in session somewhere between Christmas and Easter. This of course depended on how good the hunting season had been and when the wealthy families returned from the country.

The Royal Academy of Art would signify the 'official' opening of the Season with exhibitions opening in May each year. Then the rounds of Court Balls, concerts, dances and private parties would begin. And so it would continue until August - when everyone packed up and left London for the country, as Parliament always closed on the 12 August.

The theatres of London were fully booked as hosts, families and friends invited each other to various venues and vied for the most popular stage performances of that Season.

Over the years, the RSC has been very popular in London. The tragedies of Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear were tempered by those of The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing and A Mid Summer Night's Dream.

After a successful Season, the RSC would extend its 'season' by taking the play into the provinces for the enjoyment of those unable to attend London. Today members of the RSC tour the country at most times of year.

On Tour

The repertoire of the RSC was extended to take in other classic works and more modern styles. Major changes in policy were adopted in 1996 to broaden the company's access to the public by increasing the number of world tours. Local tours also enable up to 75% of the population to be within 45 minutes' drive of a RSC production at some time during the year.

From the very beginning, the standard of acting was high. Established actors worked alongside new members; teaching, coaching and giving the best of their skills and experience to the next generation. This is still practised by the RSC today.

Many performers moved on to screen and television. Yet at some point they always return to give their time and skills back to the company and the stage which helped to forge their career.

Although based in Stratford-upon-Avon, the RSC regularly performs in London, Newcastle upon Tyne and other UK venues. It also tours overseas, with residencies at universities and performing centres in the United States.

Who's Who?

Where else would you find Dr Who and Jean Luc Picard working side-by-side? David Tennant and Patrick Stewart both appeared in Hamlet, directed by Gregory Doran.

Ian McKellen might be widely known for being 'Gandalf' in Lord of the Rings, but he made a brilliant Macbeth alongside Judi Dench as his Lady Macbeth in 1976, directed by Trevor Nunn. She had earlier had a Fine Romance1 with her late husband, Michael Williams, in Henry V (1969).

Prime Suspect star Helen Mirren famously played Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra in 1982, years before she became The Queen, and Ben Kingsley starred as the Danish Prince in a 1975 production of Hamlet before he walked in the footsteps of Ghandi.

One of the most flamboyant of actors has to be the hard-drinking, hard-playing Richard Burton! He played Hamlet - where he was favourably critiqued as being another Laurence Olivier. He also alternated the roles of Iago and Othello before being called to Hollywood to play 'Marc Anthony' in the film Anthony and Cleopatra alongside Elizabeth Taylor, whom he attempted to tame in The Taming of the Shrew, and later in real life.

Of course, we have to mention Vanessa Redgrave, who cut her teeth working on stage beside her father, Michael Redgrave. It was she whom Peter Hall approached to help him create the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960.

The RSC is an ensemble company. From 2006-2008, The Histories Ensemble, a group of 34 actors, presided over the company, producing eight of Shakespeare's histories. The 2009 ensemble has recently been announced and will remain in residence at the RSC for the next two years.

1A popular TV comedy series from the 1980s

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