The amazing backdrop tapestry is King John. ‘Shakespeare’s rarely performed tale of a nation in turmoil vibrates with modern resonance in this new production by Director Eleanor Rhode in her debut at the RSC’.
Have I been offered the lead-role, I hear you ask? Well, much as I would like to say I have, the appearance on stage was more a piece of opportunism on my part. But some background first. A family birthday celebration took the form of an RSC weekend: Friday evening at the Comedy Festival, a behind-the-scenes tour of the complex on Saturday morning and then back at the rooftop restaurant for a birthday dinner.
With a statue of the Bard in the forefront this is the front view of the ‘new’ extension and rooftop restaurant, taken from the canal locks.
Our Saturday morning ‘by invitation’ tour was against the backdrop of warm sun and clear blue skies, making the RSC’s location appear quintessentially English.
These tours are designed to cultivate long-term donors and the Board member leading our glimpse ‘behind-the-scenes’ was Sir Anthony Seldon. I had heard him speak a few years ago and was impressed with his oratory on the life of Churchill.
His willingness to give his time and skills as a board member brings significant heft to the work of the RSC. However, he really wanted us to meet the staff who do the work of putting on performances and keeping the show going.
Now an admission. I love getting under the bonnet of how businesses and organisations of all shapes and sizes, work. I am fascinated by the coordination and effort to make things happen, efficiently and effectively, year after year. One of the great triumphs of human civilisation is how we do this – and one we so often take for granted.
I can remember the first factory visit I made, to the Wills Tobacco building in Alexandra Parade in Glasgow in the very early 1970s. I was fascinated by the hundreds of workers and in my mind can still see them hand-stripping the tobacco leaves. The grand building is still in use but tobacco products ceased almost 40 years ago.
I have done many such visits since and find them a great way to learn. In some ways I am surprised that ‘study visits’ are not as popular as they once were. Perhaps time for a resurgence?
Anyway, back to my ‘staged’ moment of fame. One of the staff caught my sense of wonderment at the surroundings and offered to take my photo. I initially declined but then doubled back to take him up on his offer – what a great blog pic I thought. We got chatting and I discovered he oversees theatre lighting. Just think of the importance of lighting world-famous productions.
I asked how long he had been there. Now to me he looked quite a young man. I know, I know. It depends on where you’re viewing that from. He told me he had been there for around 25 years. As a local he had come into the theatre as an unskilled youth looking for a job shifting stage props. Gradually he worked his way up and mastered new skills. What a great story – and a strong demonstration of the power of culture to create employment and contribute to social and economic prosperity.
Exterior view of the Swan Theatre in the RSC complex.
With an annual turnover of over £80m, this is a major business. And they produce the most creative Annual Report I have ever seen. Their multiplier impact on the local economy is huge – Stratford-upon-Avon is the global heart of Shakespeare.
I came away with a renewed sense of admiration for the sheer variety and quality of cultural and tourist experiences available to us in the UK. But the last word goes to another of the RSC staff, one of their historians. He commented that much of the work of the theatre is still driven by the Victorian ideal that ‘entertainment alone is not enough; self-improvement must come from it’.
'All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts...'
Extract from As you Like it Act II Scene VII