The Royal Shakespeare Company’s dream second home

The RSC is settling into North London, with a signing of a five-year contract for an annual programme at the Roundhouse and another upcoming season ast Hampstead Theatre.

THE Royal Shakespeare Company may have just reopened its revamped main house in Stratford-on-Avon, but it is also busy putting down roots in north London.

As its second successful season at The Roundhouse draws to a close, the theatre company has announced a five-year contract to bring an annual programme of productions to the Chalk Farm venue.

And for the second year running, the RSC will take over Hampstead Theatre with a series of new plays this spring.

Between April 16 and June 18, a trio of world premieres will be performed by the current RSC ensemble.

Rona Munroe’s Little Eagles marks the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s earth orbit by examining the Cold War space race through the eyes of the Russian scientist tasked with creating the remarkable breakthrough.

Silence, a devised collaboration between director David Farr and Filter Theatre Company, contrasts rural emptiness – where Kate can hear only the noises in her head – with the urban cacophony of London, where Michael struggles to hear a silent third person in a conversation recorded 20 years earlier.

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And Tarbell Alvin McCraney’s American Trade is an uncompromising comedy about a charismatic US hustler who moves to London to start an escort business.

An additional community project will involve both Hampstead Theatre and the Roundhouse via a participatory production called Adelaide Road – the street geographically linking the two venues.

Loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s As You Like It, it will explore themes of exile, home and community and will be researched and co-written by local community groups and RSC poet in residence Aide Mannix. The project will include readings at both venues, a digital map, phone app and a promenade performance along the road on May 14.

Roxana Silbert, who is in charge of the Hampstead season and directs Little Eagles, says: “I am thrilled to be curator of this season of work at Hampstead. The acting company has been closely involved in the development of these plays over the last two years and so bring a sense of anticipation and fearlessness with them to the rehearsal room.”

Hampstead Theatre artistic director Edward Hall says: “I am delighted to welcome the RSC back to Hampstead and to be creating this ground-breaking season of world premieres with Roxana Silbert. This thrilling new venture includes major new works from some of the leading voices in theatre today over a 10-week period.”

Farr adds that Silence will deal with “the chaotic mess of Western life and our need for moments of peace and silence – where do we find them in the chaos of the modern world?”

He has previously worked with Filter on several productions, including an acclaimed version of Twelfth Night that toured to The Tricycle Theatre last year.

“Filter is a collection of actors, sound artists and composers who use sound in innovative and exciting ways and specialise in highly visual storytelling of great emotional stories that expose the mechanisms of the way the piece is working.”

As an RSC associate director, Farr is also involved in the current Roundhouse season. He directed both The Winter’s Tale and King Lear, which runs from tomorrow (January 21) until February 4.

Farr is delighted that the Roundhouse will be the company’s London base for the foreseeable future.

“It’s a fabulous venue, a democratic space with an audience of intelligent, acute listeners. Like all great theatres, it has a rich history, it’s a venue with friendly ghosts. The audience feels that and it makes everything that happens more authentic.”

It also lends itself to the RSC’s thrust staging – every year, a technical team will build a 750-seat auditorium within the former Victorian engine shed.

Farr explains that thrust stages – similar to the Jacobean venues of Shakespeare’s day – allow big audiences to see shows while maintaining an intimacy and proximity to the action.

“You still get the feeling of a shared collective experience and it suits the imaginative speed of Shakespeare’s plays. The RSC’s work is very much actor-based performance and is all about the relationship between the actor and the audience. You can’t put large bits of set on stage but that doesn’t mean you can’t create beautiful pictures or visual theatre.”

Farr approached Lear as a family drama. “It’s Shakespeare’s most beautiful, human play about two families falling apart, both battling insanity and madness and how those relationships grow apart and together again.

“Lear always comes down to a man and his daughters and another man and his sons. When the two men meet that meeting is the greatest in Shakespeare.”

He loves the way that RSC productions have a long life – Lear premiered 18 months ago and goes on to be performed as part of an RSC season in America.

“RSC plays and productions really grow over time. Simply living with the play and with each other over 18 months, it gains a truth that has more felt experience to it, you can’t intellectualise it but it’s truer because they have done it more.”

And he’s phlegmatic about opening in London hot on the heels of an acclaimed King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse and the inevitable critical comparisons that will result.

“Directing a Shakespeare play, you have to accept you are entering a rich British theatrical tradition. But there’s a huge difference between ours and an intimate Donmar 200-seat experience, and enormous and interesting differences between the way that different actors and directors approach different productions. That mix is healthy. What the RSC stands very clearly for is strong director-led vision.”