THE Royal Shakespeare Company has announced its first proper Newcastle season for years and reaffirmed its commitment to the city.
News of three major productions coming to the Theatre Royal this autumn could hardly be more timely, with Newcastle City Council’s proposal to axe funding to arts organisations attracting widespread attention and damaging the city’s reputation as a cultural hotspot.
Now comes the RSC with a season of Shakespeare productions – Hamlet, As You Like It and All’s Well That Ends Well – that will be the envy of other British provincial cities. The production of As You Like It will feature a score composed by acclaimed folk musician Laura Marling.
Philip Bernays, chief executive of the Theatre Royal, said yesterday: “Isn’t it fantastic?
“We have been talking about a transitional phase for about five years now while first the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (in Stratford) and then the Theatre Royal was refurbished.
“Then there were the Olympics and the Cultural Olympiad and so on. Finally this is the end of all of that and the return of the RSC season.” Newcastle will be alone in presenting back-to-back main stage Shakespeare productions fresh from the RSC’s summer season at its Stratford-upon-Avon base.
But Mr Bernays suggested this could be just the start.
“This year there won’t be any work on at Northern Stage but that is because of the transition the RSC has been going through.
“The absolute intention is that in 2014 there will be work on both stages. Even this year there are likely to be associated events that can’t be announced because they are yet to be finalised.”
The first RSC Newcastle season took place in 1977 after artistic director Trevor Nunn decided the company’s work should be seen beyond Stratford and London.
A deal was struck with Newcastle City Council and city theatres and people queued for tickets to see brilliant young actors including Ian McKellen, Judi Dench and Greg Hicks.
Mr Hicks will be back this year, playing Claudius to Jonathan Slinger’s Hamlet.
In the season’s 1980s and 90s heyday the RSC was bringing as many as 10 productions to three Newcastle stages, at the same time building a large and knowledgeable audience.
When the season was threatened by earlier funding crises, North East businesses rallied round to ensure it would continue.
In recent years, with funding again an issue and with the major refurbishments, some doubted the RSC’s special relationship with the region would be rekindled, despite assurances to the contrary.
This season of plays is the last to be programmed by Michael Boyd, who recently left the RSC.
His successor as artistic director, Gregory Doran, said yesterday: “Our special relationship with the North East is a source of great pride to the company.
“The audiences in Newcastle are wonderful and the actors enjoy their time performing in this great cultural city very much.
“Our new deputy artistic director, Erica Whyman, brings significant understanding of Newcastle and the potential for future partnerships, and we are all looking forward to working together over the coming years.”
Ms Whyman, who was awarded the OBE in the New Year Honours, ran Northern Stage for seven years before joining the RSC in January. The return of the RSC season, always regarded as one of the region’s blue chip cultural attractions, is a special boost for the Theatre Royal, coming on the back of another record-breaking panto and an eight-week run of Oliver! which met its 90% attendance target. Tickets for the three RSC plays go on sale to the public next Friday and business could be brisk.
Mr Bernays said: “We know the audience is out there. People are constantly asking us, ‘When are the RSC coming back?’”