‘Things long past’

2nd September 2013

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard II cast is one week into rehearsals. Thoughts on the first day follow below, but first it’s my pleasure to introduce to you our Production Diary. Each week between now and the Live from Stratford-upon-Avon cinema broadcast on 13 November we are going to release a short video. Episode 1 features an interview with director Greg Doran (who is also, of course, Artistic Director of the RSC) and he does a very good job of explaining how the production diary will work across the next three months.

Glimpses of the first morning can be seen in the video. The rehearsal space opened up just before 9am when the stage managers arrived and started readying the room. Within half an hour members of the cast were arriving, greeting friends and colleagues from productions past. Many of the production team arrived too. Just after 10am Greg encouraged us to bring together a large circle of chairs, following which we each briefly introduced ourselves. Greg gave a brief introduction and asked several of those working on the production to do the same.

Among those who spoke was the set and costume designer Stephen Brimson Lewis. He talked about how he intended the set to combine qualities of the epic and the domestic, and he stressed how important an extended development period at the RSC had been.  The chance to experiment with new materials and techniques was exactly what the commercial theatre could not offer – and what companies like the RSC could make possible.

Then Greg remembered what he said was one of the most important announcements. His rehearsal room is a mobile-free zone. If a phone rings during a rehearsal, he charges the miscreant owner £5. And if it rings during a run of the play in the rehearsal room, the fine is £25. Cue much checking of iPhones and Androids.

After an hour or so it was time for the first exercise. The chairs were cleared away and Greg asked each of the cast and stage management team to shake hands and introduce themselves to every other person in the group. Following which everyone had to think of three ‘secrets’ and go around the group again telling each person one of these secrets. And after this, everyone sat on chairs again, although this time arranged in a semi-circle.

One by one, Greg called each person onto a central chair, at which point the rest of the group had to identify them and recall what were their three secrets. Some of the secrets were predictably silly (the name of a pet, the fact that the actor has socks with days of the week on them – and he can only wear the ‘right’ day of the week) but others were about hair-raising adventures and the exploits of family members. It was a strikingly good way to break the ice and provide talking points for the tea break that came next.

Next was Greg’s initial exposition of the play and the context for the production. He spoke fluently for an hour, without notes, although with occasional help from a selection of writers whose works he had brought into the room. He began by reading from W.B. Yeats’ 1901 essay At Stratford-on-Avon:

I have seen this week King JohnRichard II, the second part of Henry IVHenry V, the second part of Henry VI., and Richard III played in their right order, with all the links that bind play to play unbroken; and partly because of a spirit in the place, and partly because of the way play supports play, the theatre has moved me as it has never done before. That strange procession of kings and queens, of warring nobles, of insurgent crowds, of courtiers, and of people of the gutter has been to me almost too visible, too audible, too full of an unearthly energy.

The great Irish poet was in Stratford for Frank Benson‘s ‘Week of Kings’, which was the first time a modern theatre in Britain played an extended sequence of Shakespeare’s History plays. Benson managed the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford from 1888 until the First World War and he is one of the central figures in the pre-history of the RSC. As Sylvia Morris details on The Shakespeare Blog, he and members of his company are commemorated in a stained glass window in what is now the Swan Room in the Stratford theatre. He is immortalised there in his signature role as King Richard II (a detail of which can be seen above).

Greg explainsed- as he does, rather more briefly, in the video – that Benson’s engagement with the Histories began a distinguished tradition of the RSC presenting them as a cycle, including in 1951 (again in Festival not Company days) for the Festival of Britain, in 1963-64 as Peter Hall and John Barton’s The Wars of the Roses, and most recently in Michael Boyd’s triumphant presentation of all eight. His own approach to Richard II is something of a break with this, for he is less interested in seeing the play’s connections with what comes  later and more concerned with presenting it as ‘a great lyric tragedy in its own right’.

Greg outlined what we know of the earliest productions of the play, of its sources and of its relationship to Christopher Marlowe’s drama Edward II – all subjects that we’ll return to in this blog (especially after I have seen the National Theatre’s new production of the Marlowe). He talked about the place of History plays in the Elizabethan theatre and how, especially around 1603 when James I succeeded Elizabeth, there was a sense that History plays were exploring for their audiences attitudes towards the monarchy and the possibilities of new kinds of governance.

For Greg, the medieval context is hugely important – and he is peerless in imparting all of this to enthuse and engage a cast. But as he said at the close of his presentation, ‘What we are doing is this great play, now.’ That process began after lunch, with a further detailed presentation of the designs and then the first read-through. Except that Greg’s initial read-throughs are far from straightforward, for he gets actors to read parts that are not their own. New kinds of meanings and understandings emerge, ahead of the details of individual performances. The journey had started towards ‘this great play, now’.


  1. Jen says:

    “the fact that the actor has socks with days of the week on them – and he can only wear the ‘right’ day of the week”
    that’s totally david tennant lol.

    thanks for the behind the scenes blog post, it introduces an interesting insight into the work done in preparing for a play and i cant wait for the next one. same goes for the production diaries 🙂

    wishing the cast and production team best of luck in the rehearsals!

  2. Jasmine says:

    Those ‘secrets’ definitely belong to Mr. Tennant! Love the ‘no phone’ rule.
    Thanks for the update. I’ll be waiting eagerly for the next! 🙂

  3. Helene says:

    I “second” and “third” the no-mobile-rule. Good choice on Greg Doran’s part.

    I am enjoying this blog already, John.

  4. Danala says:

    These insights are wonderful!! Thank you for your blog!! I am in the states & have little experience with behind the scenes Shakespeare….as I will be in London in December and have tics to see this play I am enthralled by this process!!! Thank-You.

  5. Karen M says:

    I love these insights into the production and hope this will continue with the plays next summer. I’m looking forward to RII but will miss the summer ensemble a great deal.

  6. I look forward to your thoughts about Edward II (and the parallels to Richard II of course, I like nothing best than plays that work as companion pieces). Personally I am a little bit in love with the NT production (all down to being blind to its faults probably, but I can’t help it).

    • John Wyver says:

      I’m really looking forward to seeing it – from what I’ve read so far it’s one of those productions that divides people. My tickets are for about ten days’ time.

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