Roxana Silbert, Associate Director at the Royal Shakespeare Company and director of David Greig’s play Dunsinane at the Hampstead theatre, explains the evolution and importance of the RSC’s commitment to new writing.
Michael Boyd, in his inaugural season as Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, included a festival of new plays at the end of the Stratford season. It was the start of a project that would blend contemporary theatre-making and classical theatre technique, combining them into a singular, rigorously evolving practice. Dunsinane and The Gods Weep, the two brilliant new plays making up our current residency at Hampstead, continue to build on his desire to spotlight new plays as an integral part of the RSC experience.
It is well known that Michael Boyd cleared the crippling deficit when he took over the RSC but it is less well known that he has set about restoring the company, fibre by fibre, to its vigour and creative health.
Michael invited me in as an Associate Director last year and I recognised immediately the possibilities of what he was doing. The RSC had always had, from its inception, an experimental heart. At its height it had been a company that blended technique, intelligence and the urgency of the new better than anyone. When Michael put his faith in the development of artists the company once again committed to the rigours of research and development. As my career has primarily involved directing new plays I saw the benefits of doing this kind of research and development in a classical environment.
From 2004 until 2007 the RSC’s New Work Seasons had success with Breakfast With Mugabe, Trade, The American Pilot and Days Of Significance. The commissioning of new plays continued and strengthened, and new work was given full-run productions rather than festival outings. Last autumn two new Russian commissions The Drunks and The Grain Store were the first new plays produced on the main stage in Stratford.
Last November the re-launch of the RSC Studio was the final piece of the infrastructure to fall into place. The Studio allows writers, directors and designers to create radical new works, experiment with new stagings of Shakespeare, train in classical techniques and find new hybrid ways of making theatre. It allows a singular practice to evolve which is about taking strengths from the classical and the contemporary and making a future that has an unpredictable and limitless dramatic possibility.
Dunsinane resulted from a workshop we tailor-made for David Greig. He assembled a group of actors and musicians and went to the locations in Scotland that are significant to the history of Macbeth. This allowed him to sample the atmosphere and vibrations of that world. He came back with a first draft that was so exciting we programmed it straight away.
David then wrote another draft and we did a few days with actors during last year’s Edinburgh Festival. David’s show Midsummer was playing to rave reviews at the Traverse so it was an interesting switch for him to make between two plays with substantially differing mindsets.
Dunsinane is an ambitious piece of work that delves into history and finds the future. The more David explored the history of Scotland the more he found the resonances of Iraq and Afghanistan. The more he delved into Shakespeare’s dramaturgical tools the more he found humour and lightness and breadth of possibility. Dunsinane feels to me like a very good indicator of what is possible when you combine the best of the classical and the best of the new.
Alongside Dunsinane is a production of The Gods Weep by Dennis Kelly, to be directed by Maria Aberg. Dennis has explored the idea of corporate powers invading our lives. It is frightening in its subject and thrilling in its staging. Maria has worked on Days Of Significance for us and she was Associate Director on The Winter’s Tale and Pericles with [Royal Court Artistic Director] Dominic Cooke.
This is a key moment in the life of the RSC. It feels very invigorating to be such a big part of it. We are developing work – classical and new – to play in our three re-developed spaces in Stratford, all of which will be open very soon. We have over 40 writers under commission. We are having commissioning conversations with leading dramatists across the globe. They can write big plays or small plays; historical plays or plays set in any present or future they can imagine. It is a mission we are committed to. This singular practice is something that is becoming a reality at the RSC and it is testament to Michael Boyd’s faith in artists and his deep, graceful patience.
I am very proud of the two plays in this residency at Hampstead theatre. We have opened up the potential of this wonderful theatre space and made it into a dynamic one-room experience. We have filled it with drama and politics and I can’t think of a better way to start off an election year.