Screening the RSC, 1.

1st June 2019

John Wyver writes: I am thrilled that my book Screening the Royal Shakespeare Company: A Critical History will be published by Bloomsbury in The Arden Shakespeare series on 27 June. It aspires to be an academic study of the adaptation history of the RSC from 1910 to today, but I hope that readers with a more general interest in the company and in the processes of translating stage to screens will also find it worth their time. Such are the exigencies of academic publishing, this is a volume that perhaps you might consider requesting from a library, rather than buy as an eye-wateringly expensive hardback or e-book. There is likely to be a more reasonably priced paperback next year – and the more libraries purchase the hardback, the quicker this process may work its way through the system.

My plan over the next month is to write 5 or 6 posts that outline the contents of the chapters – and that highlight bits and pieces that may prove to be intriguing. Let’s start today with the Introduction.

I begin with a roll-call of RSC Richard IIIs whose performers were preserved in some form of screen version: Frank Benson in a silent adaptation released in 1911:

From later, there is Baliol Holloway glimpsed in a 1939 travelogue funded by London, Midland and Scottish railway; Ian Holm in the triumphant BBC recording of The Wars of the Roses, recorded in 1964 (and which Illuminations has released on DVD); Antony Sher, whose spider-like king exists in short extracts filmed for a BBC review programme, and in one of the single-camera archival recordings that the company began to make in the early 1980s; Jonathan Slinger in Michael Boyd’s magnificent Histories cycle of the 2000s , who was also captured by the merciless fixed camera; and Jonjo O’Neill whose antics live on in various paratextual moving images filmed in 2012, including this:

My hope is that looking at these Richards can give a sense of the riches of the RSC screen traces over more than a century. ‘No theatre company in the world,” I assert, ‘has a more extensive and more varied moving-image history.’ And this history, although it has been marginalised in most of the writing about the RSC, has much to tell us not only about the company ‘but also about approaches to Shakespeare, about the theatre, about translations from the stage to screens of many kinds, and about the culture and society that brought them forth.

The company’s adaptation history embraces feature films, television productions, documentaries, all kinds of performances extracts, archival recordings, paratexts and, most recently of course, the RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon cinema broadcasts that I produce for the company – and the next of which is the wholly enjoyable and richly interesting The Taming of the Shrew, to be shown this coming Wednesday, 5 June:

And of course this is not just a story about Shakespeare on stage and screen. Adaptations have been made from RSC productions of Molière, Ibsen, Strindberg, Rostand, Bulgakov, Giraudoux, Pinter, Duras and Weiss. There is a grand parade of great actors who appeared in these adaptations: John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, as well as more recent stars like David Tennant and Pappa Essiedu. Key directors who transferred their stagings to the screen include Peter Hall, Peter Brook, Trevor Nunn and Gregory Doran.

The mediation processes that brought many of the major works are considered in the book in detail, exploring questions of technology as well as the economic, creative and cultural contexts in which they were created. I also argue that ‘the collectivity of the screen versions can be regarded as a multistranded adaptation of the lives, both public and private, of the RSC as a company.’ My hope too is that considering the adaptation history ‘can offer insights into broader social and cultural questions.

At each stage this study asks why certain RSC productions were adapted, and others not; what riole the company and its creatives had on each occasion in determining what was screened, and how the translation occurred; how the company is presented by a particular adaptation… and what meanings or value the RSC is contributing to its partners who, as likely as not, provided production funding and undertook distribution.

One other key imperative behind the book is simply to map the RSC’s screen archive, and to raise awareness of it so that it can become more available and more useful to practitioners today and tomorrow.

Despite at present being comparatively little-recognized and rarely activated, the moving-image archive of the RSC offers a rich resource for creators to learn from, and for them to reuse and rework, and perhaps especially so as adaptation forms become increasingly complex and hybrid. The archive must not simply be a passive object of study but also needs to be an active contributor to original ways of bringing together stages and screens of all kinds.

To which ends, the book unfolds in the following way:

Chapter 1: Beginners, 1910-59: engagements with the varied early engagements with the screen of the Stratford company before it became the RSC in 1961, including Frank Benson’s silent Shakespeare, documentaries in the 1930s, radio recordings from the 1950s, a first live television broadcast in 1955 with part of The Merry Wives of Windsor, and a recording of Peter Hall’s 1959 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, shot for American television but never broadcast.

Chapter 2: Television Times, 1961-68: consideration of the RSC’s profoundly collaborations with BBC Television, including on a glorious The Cherry Orchard (1962), a vivid As You Like It (1963) and The Wars of the Roses (1965).

Chapter 3: Making Movies, 1964-73: the largely untold story of the RSC’s deeply problematic flirtation through the 1960s with the Hollywood producer Filmways, plus a consideration of three major adaptations directed by Peter Brook: Marat/Sade (1968), Tell Me Lies (1969) and the majestic King Lear (1971).

Chapter 4: Intimate Spaces, 1972-82: exploration of the decade of Trevor Nunn’s television productions, including his great Macbeth (1979) with Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, plus the work that culminated in the wonderful adaptation for Channel 4 of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1982), from which this is an extract:

Chapter 5: Toil and Troubles, 1982-2012: a chronicle of the years of strikingly few mainstream adaptations, whether for television or the cinema, but when archival recordings and more began.

Chapter 6: Now-ness, 2000-18: an engagement with Gregory Doran’s trilogy of BBC films – Macbeth (2001, pictured in the header image with Antony Sher and Harriet Walter), Hamlet (2008) and Julius Caesar (2012) – together with the RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon broadcasts, plus a few thoughts about the future.

Each of which I’ll outline in more detail in forthcoming posts…

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