The #shakespeareathome lockdown initiative has pushed me to do something constructive with my collection of Royal Shakespeare Company theatre programmes. I have been collecting these for at least 35 years and now have a nearly complete set of post-war programmes from the Stratford theatres (if anyone has a hoard of uber-rare, early programmes from The Other Place, I need to know).
I went to school in Stratford-upon-Avon, and have a special fondness for the RSC. Their work influenced me in a big way when I was growing up and inspired me to start writing about theatre. I love their programmes for a number of reasons. They are the only tangible reminder of experiences that live powerfully in the memory, or the imagination in the case of the majority of shows which I did not see. They are pieces of fascinating, often unforgettable, graphic design which say a great deal about their time. And they are full of incidental detail, from the ever-present adverts for Stratford institutions such as 1980s lingerie shop Camille, local jewellers George Pragnell and the ever-aspirational Hilton, to rehearsal photos that reveal Terry Hands directing in a kung fu outfit c.1972.
I have well over 500 hundred programmes on my shelves, but have chosen my favourites to write about which narrows it down, if only a little. The RSC was formed in 1961, and its first programmes were single folded sheets, first in red and then in a neat, mid-century yellow, grey and black design, such as The Tempest (1962). But the design was the same for each show, until a major relaunch in 1963 changed everything. Programme covers became serious works of art in their own right. However, poster designs have always taken precedence. For most of the RSC’s history, posters have carried different images from programmes, with the latter a little overlooked.
The RSC’s new, full colour, multi-page programmes were, they claimed, the first in the world. The three 1963 shows – Julius Caesar, The Comedy of Errors and The Tempest – had bespoke, abstract cover designs that communicated the cultural excitement of the early 1960s very clearly indeed. It’s arguable that the RSC never produced anything better. The colours must have taken audiences, who were used to something much more staid, by surprise. They cleverly mirror the moods of the three plays in abstract form, and are striking statements of intent. These designs kicked off a run of exciting, ever-changing graphic art that continues more than 50 years later.
The new company made its reputation with The Wars of the Roses, when Peter Hall, John Barton and Frank Evans staged Shakespeare’s history plays as a cycle for the first time. The three later plays (with the three parts of Henry VI condensed into two evenings) formed the other half of the 1963 season. Their programmes used the same colours as the first three productions, but in a much more sinister way. No heritage theatre here, just blood, mud, struggle and death. The helpful credits identify the cadaverous statue as one John Golafre, buried in Fyfield, Berkshire.
The full Wars of the Roses sequence of six history plays came the following year and used a set of new designs – different images for each programme, apart from Richard III which linked back to the year before. Rather less menacing than their predecessors, this run has an acid-fuelled quality, medieval history glowing with a new intensity. This is a stone-cold classic set of programmes, although the title format used for Edward IV has always troubled me slightly as it does not match the others. This ground-breaking design work is all, I think, down to George Mayhew who is credited as ‘Design Consultant’. He was part of London design firm BDMW, and also designed for BBC Television in the 1960s. In the second half of the 1960s, RSC programme design was as bold, energetic and consistent as it would ever be. These are the golden years, with designs reflecting the eclecticism and imagination in the visual culture of the time. Each production has its own distinct graphic identity, with minimum apparent corporate control, but all still part of a recognisable house style that guided rather than controlled the output. It looked like the RSC.
Peak psychedelia features on four programmes in particular. The Comedy of Errors (1965) has bolding clashing colours splashed across its somewhat unhinged cover. Romeo and Juliet (1967) must have shocked some, either through its pinkness or its nudity, which was very much on trend that year. Dr Faustus (1968) is a bit much really, but captures the play’s doomed thrills in brain-searing pink, orange and red.
Finally, Women Beware Women (1969) has Susan Fleetwood, Elizabeth Spriggs and Judi Dench in cerise and violet. The alternative cover which is equally striking but rather more oblique, using a black and white Magritte. When the RSC put out two different programme designs, it was almost always to replace the original cover with a production photo. These two versions exemplify the tussle between minimal and maximal design approaches that seemed to be going on at the time in the mind of one designer.
On the minimal side, the cover for David Warner’s Hamlet (1965) is clean, confident and the first example of another trend that would later take over – a cover based on a photo of the lead actor. The Revenger’s Tragedy (1967) is one of my absolute favourites, gleefully dark and fabulously simple like the graffiti of the Paris 1968 protests. King Lear (1968) is a restrained classic – later Lears would also use the abstracted wilderness theme, but none quite as well as this. As You Like It (1968) uses one colour, an acid meltdown green, to stunning effect. Troilus and Cressida (1968) has a great image and an unusual but effective colour combination.
The one colour approach reaches a dead end with A Winter’s Tale (1969) which is in white with an embossed title, for which The Beatles’ White Album is surely responsible. As the image shows, it’s tactile but impossible to photograph. It also wears very badly, but not as badly as the all black Hamlet (1970). It is both conceptually epic and ridiculous, and there is no point in even attempting to show it.
Ghosts (1968) harks back to a time before full colour printing, as though the past had been reedited to become much weirder. The design is echoed in a couple of 1980s programmes, as a red nose – for King Lear (1982) a great Ralph Steadman design and for Peter Barnes’ Red Noses (1985), which looks like a CND poster. Steadman produced some of the RSC’s best posters, but his programme covers used different, much simpler images – Macbeth (1982) is also highly effective. The exception is The Beggar’s Opera (1992), which has everything going on.
In 1970 the RSC programme designers got restless, and started experimenting with formats. It would take most of the decade before they calmed down again, and by then editor John Goodwin and designer George Mayhew were no longer in charge. While the format changes are heroically annoying – different sizes each year, pockets to hold loose leaf sheets, multiple inserts, or half the contents upside down so you have to read it from both ends – the cover designs entered a new phase of boldness and clarity. Some of the best images are to be found in this era, alongside others that fail spectacularly. The period is more hit-and-miss than the 1960s, but some designs are great. I have a particular liking for three of the 1974 season programmes: Richard II, King John and Cymbeline. They are as plain as programme gets (at least, without going all white): no logos, no author, just a title and an image. Usually a date too, because people just can’t resist writing on front covers. They are seriously striking, with images in black and gold that create a sort of medieval modernism.
This approach had been developing for a while, with both Dr Faustus and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (both 1970) pulling the palette back to a minimum. The latter (for Peter Brook’s famous trapeze production) is also the first design to feature dayglo colour of any kind, and pretty much the last.
The growing heritage of programme design gets an acknowledgement on the back of the 1974 programme for Cymbeline, which was the final play in the complete Shakespeare canon staged at Stratford from 1963. It also announced a plan, never realised as far as I know, to publish the programmes for all 37 plays in a book. I expect they worked out how much it would cost. This is the only programme – before or since – that discusses the contribution of the designers and programme editors in any detail. It reveals that “all were edited by John Goodwin, working with George Mayhew (graphics), the Herald Press (printers) and in most cases ACH Smith (text).” Other individuals had been credited in various programmes over the previous decade, but none clearly linked to design. Intriguingly, Cymbeline also credits Michael Mayhew, George’s son. Michael went on to head the National Theatre’s design studio for 23 years, until 2009, and was responsible for reams of classic programmes and posters.
By 1974 not everything was designed by George Mayhew, which perhaps accounts for the entirely different approach taken for the Macbeth programme, by Ginni Gillam. The unifying house style of the 1960s had entirely broken down by this point, but this particular programme is exceptionally effective, a down-lit Nicol Williamson exuding pure theatrical evil. Macbeth (1976), one of the RSC’s best-known productions with Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, is an iconic image but I prefer the 1974 design.
The tall, narrow programmes used for the 1976 and 1977 seasons included some successful designs that heralded a coming era of high achievement. Henry 6 (sic – 1975) is by Allen/Beresford – more corporate, but continuing the modern medieval theme. King Lear (1976) by Ginni Gillan and Mark Polkinghorne is unapologetically bleak. Gillam’s Romeo and Juliet (1976) uses graffiti-style text to good effect,while her Midsummer Night’s Dream (1976) is complete contrast, apparently channelling prog rock album design.
In 1978 the format returned, thankfully, to a straightforward foolscap and the designs immediately became more consistent in quality, with a range of designers contributing. Gini Gillam continued to feature. Ginni Moo-Young’s Love Labour’s Lost (1978) is a thing of simplicity and beauty and her All’s Well That Ends Well (1982), designed with Roger Walton, has a similar eeriness.
Chris Frampton and Jeff Jones of The Drawing Room contributed the alluring alchemical design for The Tempest and a mysterious, postmodern Antony and Cleopatra (both 1978). Allen/Beresford’s Coriolanus (1977) is a classic of the time, a compelling, repetitive design. John Kibblewhite’s Othello (1979) has a tangible atmosphere of death in the sun. Meanwhile, at the Stratford Hilton the question is ‘To eat or not to eat?’
The early 1980s was the first time I became aware of the theatre – perhaps why this is my favourite era of RSC programme design – but the best covers from this time have undeniable presence. They are graphically strong, not constrained by house style or toned down for easy consumption. They encapsulate something about the production they represent, without making obvious visual connections. Images stand in their own right, as though they were simply the only design that made sense. This is also the point where the RSC decided they no longer had room to credit programme designers, although there was space for an ever-growing list of associates, so some of the designers who contributed most to the company are lost in the shadows. Classics from this era include The Tempest (1982) with its stunning wave motif from Japanese art; The Taming of the Shrew (1982), which could double as a heavy metal album cover; The Roaring Girl (1982), with Helen Mirren doing just that; the fearsome Poppy (1982); Twelfth Night (1983), with its deep blue cover, the RSC logo hidden in the branches of a gold tree; Hamlet (1984), which is based on a painting by Philip Core of of actor Roger Rees; Henry V (1984) with Kenneth Branagh stranded at low tide on an endless mudflat; and Love’s Labour’s Lost (1984), which is both gorgeously melancholy and very 1980s.
The late 1980s and early 1990s featured an increasingly restrained approach. The designs seem more managed, and individual expression has to fight harder to emerge. Programmes reflect the changing culture at the RSC, as cost pressures and a greater reliance on sponsorship reined in the risk taking. Nevertheless, there are design highlights of a different kind. Richard II (1986) uses an obvious white hart image from the Wilton Diptych, which is nevertheless a great painting. Cymbeline and Coriolanus (both 1990) Richard II and Love’s Labour’s Lost (both 1991) are calm and lovely. Henry IV (1991) has an extra level of weirdness, but All’s Well That Ends Well (1991) is probably the stand-out image of the era, springing fully formed and unexplained from the imagination of an uncredited designer. The prize for impracticality goes to The Comedy of Errors (1990), the only RSC programme to feature fold-out advent calendar windows. Despite that the design is exceptionally bold.
There was a corner of the RSC where distinctive programmes were delivered with particular consistency. At The Other Place, the small size of the theatre, more experimental repertoire and shorter runs meant that programmes vanished much more easily. It is a shame, because from 1986 the theatre switched from a standard design to individual, full colour programmes for each show. Some of my favourite RSC designs are from the decade that followed, until The Other Place closed for rebuilding in 1999. They also managed to credit the designers. Ginny Crow’s designs are a highlight: The Art of Success (1986), full of Hogarthian energy, Country Dancing (1986) with great use of colour; A Question of Geography (1987), with Gary Coyle, Indigo (1987), Across Oka and The Love of the Nightingale (both 1988) and The Duchess of Malfi (1989) are much more delicate than anything else produced for the company, and are genuinely lovely and rather haunting. Crow perhaps makes the most important contribution to RSC graphic design of anyone apart from George Mayhew.
The Duchess of Malfi was staged in the Swan Theatre, which needed a visual identity after publishing play texts as programmes during its first three seasons, a rather excitable response to the theatre’s new repertoire. Ginny Crow took on Swan programmes from 1989, and evolved a more robust style to match its excitement levels. She produced flamboyant, distinctive designs for Pericles (1989), Troilus and Cressida (1990), The Virtuoso, The Alchemist and The Two Gentlemen of Verona (both 1991). In The Other Place, Sue Rudd took up Crow’s previous style for The Odyssey (1992), which is a delight, and also produced a fabulous design for The Relapse (1995) at the Swan, which is very funny.
I once liked Debra Hubball’s design for Murder in the Cathedral (1993) so much that I own the poster, but now I think I prefer Anita Marsden’s The Devil is an Ass (1992) and The Painter of Dishonour (1994), which couldn’t be more different from one another. Chris Moody’s design for Three Hours After Marriage (1996), on textured paper, is also impressive. Clare Booth, who was later to run the RSC Graphics Department, designed Troilus and Cressida (1998) which I dislike but can’t quite get out of my head, which I suppose is a complement. Its grim purple and yellow colour scheme is saved by a cunningly chosen Garry Winogrand photo which really sums up the dark mood of the play.
The gilt and aquamarine design for Antony and Cleopatra (1992) seems to sound a warning for what was to come. The late 1990s were not the RSC’s best time. The company struggled to find its purpose, and programme designs responded by falling off a cliff. Many ideas were tried but few seemed to work, and programmes became bedevilled with visual confusion and an obvious lack of conceptual confidence. Amidst the purples and the strange greens, the tastefully naked photoshoots and the default use of production photos, there is not much to recommend. Macbeth (1996), with its figure in a joke shop mask, is a current and highly distinctive image. There is no clue as to who designed Cymbeline (1997), but it clearly comes from strange and compelling imagination. Hamlet (2001) makes better use of a photo of the lead (Sam West) than anything else from the time (he’s got a flick knife!) Pericles (2002) works as a standalone idea but has little to do with anything else. Nothing about it, other than the logo, says ‘RSC’. Otherwise, there are slim pickings over ten years during which I began to question the wisdom of filling my flat with a constantly growing collection.
The RSC Graphics Department took over programme production in 2002 and, without reaching past levels of design consistency, introduced higher expectations and a more confident approach. At least, I think that’s what happened: it took several years before design credits returned and they emerged into the light. Season-long design concepts were introduced. Programmes became matt for the first time and were printed on higher quality paper, becoming substantial objects. They also introduced a new white-on-red RSC logo that has remained unchanged since. These decisions set the scene for a return to form, although it took several years to bear fruit and there was still room for another maddening format change for the 2004 season, which produced five programmes that are too large to fit on a normal shelf, and another in 2005 when they became mysteriously wide. However, by the 2007 the RSC was doing justice to its remarkable history. A pair of designs for Macbeth and Ionesco’s Macbett (Clare Booth and Andy Williams) stood out for the way they avoided obvious imagery to chose something much more enticing, looking like something from Berlin.
The 2012 50th anniversary season was a design triumph, as though the shackles had been removed under a new director (Gregory Doran). Where a distinctive graphic identity had been so hard to come by, suddenly there was an entire season – and a long one at that – of designs that matched up to the best. Emmanuel Polanco was responsible for much of the run. Designs for Cardenio, Measure for Measure, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Marat/Sade, The Heresy of Love, Written on the Heart are full of invention and whimsy.
Andrzej Klimovski’s Macbeth and The City Madam draw on the surrealism of post-war Polish poster art, which is always a good thing. Elliott Erwitt repurposed an cleverly chosen archive photo for The Merchant of Venice. There is much to enjoy in this new design energy, which continued the following season. A Mad World My Masters and Titus Andronicus (both 2013) by Clare Booth and Graham Rolfe, have the same spirit of originality.
Since 2013 programme designs have produced some individual triumphs, while never achieving real consistency. The tendency to default to a production photo has returned, often resulting in a design that does not add a great deal, and fails to express what makes the RSC’s distinctive and different. RSC Graphic Design has changed its name to RSC Visual Communications, which suggests an overall change of emphasis, and digital understandably dominates thinking. It’s no longer about posters and programmes – instead, images are used in multiple contexts. However, the photo approach can work when it is used as the exception. The Witch of Edmonton (2014) uses a remarkable image of Eileen Atkins in uncomfortable close-up. Tamburlaine (2018) is also unnerving, Jude Owusu looking cheerfully murderous.
The Romans season (2017), designed by Nick Farrow and Graham Rolfe, uses production photos bathed in sinister golden light for Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Titus Andronicus, which works rather well. One-off successes include the delicate Snow in Midsummer (2017) and King John (2019), by Graham Rolfe and Sam Jones, who may have been studying Grayson Perry. As You Like It (2019) is charming, with a miniature cast lined up on the cover, waiting to perform.
The future of the programme is unclear. As prices pass the psychologically significant £5 mark and the arts is pressed to improve its sustainability record, online design is likely to take greater precedence. Perhaps the days of a small booklet that commemorates your trip to the theatre are coming to an end, but while they are still making them I will be buying them. There is a peculiar fascination to seeing the ideas and dreams of the past broadcast from the covers of programmes and hidden within the pages. The history of theatrical graphic design is a niche interest, but it touches on the concerns of the wider world at every point. At their best, theatre programmes are absorbing and even thrilling objects that contain the past, and reveal it on command.