Melvyn Bragg’s South Bank Show ended after thirty years last night with a film about the RSC that embodied all the programme’s virtues and vices: a patient, informative documentary with an almost Stalinist lack of critical rigour.
The decline of the company under Adrian Noble was air-brushed out, the present situation taken as good, brave, positive.
There were embarrassing shots of the rehearsal room and a risible film sequence in the Ukraine with artistic director Michael Boyd and designer Tom Piper, both scruffily dressed with their shirts hanging outside their trousers, listening to a bunch of old peasant women in headscarves.
The central focus was on the Russian production of The Grain Store, about the 1933 famine, which played for a mere handful of performances in the Courtyard last autumn.
Then there were shots of the As You Like It production in which the acting was as startlingly bad as indeed it had been in the summer, but nobody said anything about this.
Boyd gave an emphatically decisive interview to Bragg about “taking our art and craft more seriously” and “flying in the face of commercial commonsense” but he wasn’t challenged on anything. Bragg just grinned and looked mildly perplexed.
Boyd was also allowed to remark that he was glad that the company was no longer holed up in the Barbican — another word for fortress, he wryly noted — but wasn’t asked about the company’s confused London profile, or whether he cared about this.
There were some enticing shots of the new theatre going up by the river in Stratford and Boyd in a hard hat proudly claimed that they had now reduced the distance of the furthest seat from the stage by over a half.
In The Grain Store rehearsal there was a top table pow wow over the translation of a single word: was it to be gruel, soup, stew or porridge? Had nobody thought of bouillabaisse, chowder or consomme?
The actors now have voice and movement classes every day and have to put themselves through a crash programme of Meyerhold’s biomechanics. No more standing around pretending to be trees, apparently. No wonder they look so exhausted in performances.
It was good that Boyd said the RSC could learn a lot about how to do Shakespeare by “exposing” themselves to the Spanish Golden Age dramatists, or Russian theatre practices, and (isn’t this at least controversial, if not downright pathetic?) by linking up with other British companies.
You do wonder how distinctive this will leave the RSC as an ensemble. Won’t it resemble a job lot of other influences rather than something organically developed through much closer attention to Shakespeare and indeed the Elizabethan and Jacobean repertoire they now largely ignore? Well, it was something Bragg might at least have asked about.
Instead he concluded weakly that “it was good to see the brave work continuing.” So that’s all right then.
Except that some grainy footage of Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade film and Vivien Merchant and Ian Holm in The Homecoming suggested there was still some way to go. And they were productions of well over forty years ago…with really wonderful actors.