Plays for Today
As Yorkshire’s answer to the Globe reopens for a second year, we go behind the scenes and meet the team behind a summer of Shakespeare.
A mini village has sprung up in a corner of York’s Designer Outlet and those who enter have to agree to obey a few rules. The various marquees are the temporary rehearsal rooms for Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre and with eight casts putting on eight different tragedies, comedies and history plays, it’s being run with military precision.
“No outdoor shoes are allowed in the studios, mobile phones are also banned and the only food and drink allowed is water,” says Damian Cruden, who was recently appointed artistic director after 20-odd years at York Theatre Royal. “Last year, some companies rehearsed in York; others in London, but this set up means that we all feel like part of one family from the start.
“It really is an ensemble and what’s lovely is that if you go to see more than one of the productions you will see the same actors in very different roles. The death of the old rep companies means sadly that’s not something which happens very often, so it is quite special.”
Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre is the brainchild of Ripon entrepreneur James Cundall, founder of Lunchbox Theatrical Productions. Despite being a veteran theatre producer his ambitious plans to recreate an Elizabethan theatre in the shadow of York’s Clifford’s Tower weren’t without risk.
Was there really a market for nine weeks of Shakespeare in a city already blessed with dozens of attractions? While the RSC might have cornered the market in world class productions of the Bard, delivering a programme which is both culturally and commercially successful is not an easy formula.
Cundall though pulled off a masterstroke. Ticket sales were more than healthy, a slick marketing campaign ensured generous support for the project before the doors were even open and with the cheapest groundling tickets, where the audience sit on the floor directly in front of the stage, priced at £12.50, it made the theatre instantly accessible.
“If you wanted to go to the Globe, aside from paying for the tickets, there’s the train fare down and if you wanted to see an evening performance you’d need to add in the cost of the hotel,” says Cruden. “Before you’ve even started, you’re looking at a couple of hundred pounds.
“The Rose Theatre means that you don’t have to travel to London to see Shakespeare the way his audience did. Crucially, what last year proved is that if you stage quality work, people will pay to see it. Far too often, I think people assume that you can’t be commercially successful and deliver a quality cultural experience. The Rose Theatre has, I hope, gone some way to disproving that.”
This year a second theatre will pop up in the grounds of Blenheim Place. Like the one in York, for the cast it’s a back to basics affair. Here there are no fancy lighting rigs, no elaborate sets, the roof is open at the centre to the elements and if they want to be heard the actors have to learn the art of projection.
“It’s very different from a normal stage,” adds Cruden. “The actors are often required to perform scenes in the groundling section at the front so that means that they have to be comfortable interacting with the audience.
“The good thing this year is that quite a few of the cast from last year have returned. We spend a lot of time initially working on their vocal projection and having people who have been there and done it, does add an element of reassurance.”
In York, this year there will be a chance to see The Tempest, Twelfth Night, Henry V and Hamlet, which Cruden is also directing.
“I thought it was only fair that I gave the other three directors first pick, but Hamlet’s not a bad play to be left with is it? You can quote lines from it even if you have never seen it and the graveside scene is probably among Shakespeare’s most famous.
“As I director, I treat those landmark moments the same as every other scene, because I don’t want an actor to overthink the delivery. The rehearsal process has been really enjoyable and having now watched all the other productions you suddenly see the recurrent themes and for me, at least, it shows that all these plays must have been written by the same hand.”
While Cruden has announced his departure from York Theatre Royal, he has one final show – Swallows and Amazons – to direct alongside John R Wilkinson. That, together with Hamlet, means a busy summer for the Scot.
“The fact I am co-directing helps share the load a little,” he says. “Swallows is a production I love so much and it felt like a good one to go out on. I’m sure it will be a strange feeling when I leave the Theatre Royal for the last time as artistic director, but it’s the right time to move on.”
And for the first time in as long as he can remember, he will also have his Christmas back.
“No panto this year, so no Boxing Day matinees and no waiting for the script from Berwick,” he laughs referring to veteran dame Berwick Kaler who also writes the Theatre Royal’s Christmas shows. “Again, I am sure it will feel a little odd this year, but you know what I think I’ll get used to it.”
Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre run to September 1 in York. For the full programme visit shakespearesrosetheatre.com