Small Island

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Small Island by Andrea Levy – National Theatre at Home (Olivier)

The National Theatre’s adaptation of Andrea Levy’s exceptionally popular novel Small Island makes for remarkable theatre. This is an achievement, as adapting much-loved books for the stage is a tricky business. Helen Edmundson’s version focuses on three characters, and delivers a harsh, corrective history lesson. Hortense (Leah Harvey) is socially despised as a farmed-out child in inter-war Jamaica, but believes her education and her light skin will see her thrive in London. Demobbed Jamaican airman Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr.) is persuaded to take here there, in a marriage of convenience. In London, their landlady is Queenie (Aisling Loftus), who has escaped a Lincolnshire pig farm upbringing for a marriage to Bernard, a terrifying uptight, damaged character. The story is epic and episodic, moving across eras and through a war, from colonial Jamaica to the promised land of the Windrush generation, but its message is stark: post-war Britain, and indeed the USA, was a grimly racist country where black skin was despised, people lied to exploited, and lives destroyed.

The early scenes of Hortense’s tough upbringing have strong parallels with Jane Eyre, and similarly she trains as a schoolteacher. The racism and cruelty she encounters in Jamaica are nothing compared to what awaits in London, where black people are openly abused in the street, and Queenie receives protests from her neighbours for renting rooms to ‘darkies’. Gilbert experiences the segregationist attitudes of GIs, transplanted to Lincolnshire, and has no choice but to soak up the abuse in London and accept the one room lodgings he must share with his horrified wife. And Queenie experiences the dislocation of war, left to look after Bernard’s elderly father, left unable to speak by the First World War, while Bernard himself vanishes.

The plot, laid out on paper, contains elements of melodrama but on stage it is handled extremely well by director Rufus Norris. The interweaving stories, performed by a large cast, are entirely engrossing and the play seems to present an essential hidden history. Performances are very consistent, and the staging makes imaginative use of the Olivier stage. Katrina Lindsay’s design regularly sinks characters through the floor as scenes change, neatly symbolic of failed hopes and social betrayal. The dramatic ending leaves some hope for the future, at least for Gilbert and Hortense, but achieved in the bitterest of ways. Small Island is a significant production, making a strong political statement through accessible, popular entertainment from National’s largest stage.

Playboy of the Western World

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Photo – Keith Pattinson

Playboy of the Western World by JM Synge – Druid Theatre online

The online release of productions from Druid Theatre’s 2005 season of JM Synge’s complete works is a lockdown boon. Theatre in Galway, or any of the world’s theatre pilgrimage spots, remains somewhere in the future, but these productions are seriously alive. It’s hard to believe that they are not still being performed somewhere right now. After Riders to the Sea and The Shadow of the Glen, I turned to Synge best-known work, Playboy of the Western World, his only full length play and his generally acknowledged masterpiece. Druid’s production makes the connections to earlier work very clear, using the same dark, stone cottage set as for the first two plays. The black comedy of The Shadow of the Glen is at the root of this strangely disconcerting play, which infamously caused first night audiences to riot. An old man who keeps coming back to life, despite his son’s attempts to kill him, is both funny and grim, conjuring a line of Irish stage humour that leads directly to Martin McDonagh and Gina Moxey. In 1907, its tone must have been confusing and disconcerting.

Synge’s play has an atmosphere and a logic of its own. The inhabitants of a County Mayo village are entranced by the arrival of Christy Mahon (Aaron Monaghan), on the run from apparently killing his father. The attraction of a man with a story far outweighs any moral doubts, at least among the women. Monaghan’s performance is all arms, legs and open-mouthed gaping, and there is no doubt that he is not the sex symbol everyone wants him to be. The most sensible figure in the play is bar-owner’s daughter Pegeen Mike (Catherine Walsh), but it is she who falls for Christy for real. The play resolves itself simultaneously as farce and poetry, because the other aspect of Synge’s writing is his celebration of Irish-English. His characters speak, despite themselves, in a welter of intense imagery, dense sentences packed with a language that speaks of place and culture. It is remarkable to behold, and Synge’s achievement in holding rural Western Irish people, at the time some of the most despised in Europe, up alongside people expected to be seen on stage, is real.

Garry Hynes’ production is compelling, bringing waves of people spilling in and out of the play’s bar room, one minute full of excitement and chaos, the next desolate. The poverty of the setting is emphasised, with what might appear to be a pub on the page nothing more than a counter in an earth floored room. The cast is excellent, but Catherine Walsh’s Pegeen Mike is a still point among the rushing events, trying and failing to stand apart and absorbing the play’s contradictions until her final lamentation, as she grieves the ‘playboy’ she has just rejected. Druid have made two more of the Synge plays available online – Deirdre of the Sorrows and The Well of Saints. I will be watching…

Shadow of the Glen / Riders to the Sea

92Catherine Walsh as Nora in The Shadow of the Glen.

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The Shadow of the Glen / Riders to the Sea by JM Synge – Druid Theatre online

The lockdown may have ended theatre as we knew it, for the unforeseeable future, but it has driven some gems out of hiding and on to the internet. Production quality varies greatly, both in terms of the show itself and its presentation. Galway’s Druid Theatre show everyone exactly how it should be done with their online films of two JM Synge short plays from 2005. These were part of the DruidSynge project, performing Synge’s complete works for the first time, under the direction of Garry Hynes, a landmark event in recent Irish theatre. They are beautifully filmed performances, delivered with a weight that is almost overwhelming.

The Shadow of the Glen was Synge’s first play, set in a cottage at the end of a long County Wicklow glen, beset by mist. It is grim and strange, with hints of the more folklore-based parts of Ibsen’s work. We seem to be in middle of a cruel tragi-comic, even farcical parable. The body of a little lamented elderly husband is stretched out in a small, dark cottage when a Stranger arrives, a man of the road looking for a drink. Nora, the lady of the house, obliges. Then events take a turn that cannot be discussed with spoiling the surprise. However, Synge systematically deromanticises peasant life in the course of half an hour, leaving us in no doubt about how women’s lives hung by a thread, dependent on their husbands and their reputations. Stuck in a tiny house with the barest essentials in the middle of nowhere, its not difficult to see how a wife might grab any opportunity for company, and how a life on the road might ultimately prove the better of some terrible options. When first performed in 1903, the play raised controversy with Irish nationalist who considered it to be slanderous to Irish womanhood. It’s safe to say they were missing the point. The performances are excellent – Catherine Walsh as the Lady of the House in particular – and seem to be channelled from deepest Wicklow a long, long time ago.

Riders to the Sea is set in the same cottage interior, but it is now on the remote Aran Islands. This was Synge second play, and this time it upset people with its dismissal of religion. The matriarch of the play has lost son after son to the sea and considers herself cursed, doomed to lose the last son who remains – unable to convince him to stay off the sea as the wind rises in the south. Her two daughters look on, with little in prospect but lives of waiting for death to come from the sea. The play is dark but entirely human, with a devastating detail of the dropped stitches on a sock retrieved from the sea that allow a sister to identify her drowned brother’s body. Marie Mullen’s Maurya has the stature in grief of a figure from Greek tragedy and her final line – “No man at all can be living forever and we must be satisfied” – is, remarkably, taken verbatim from a letter to Synge from a young Aran islander he met during his research. The line between ordinary speech and poetry in these plays is impossible to locate, and the line between ordinary experience and myth is obscured in the mist. Druid has also posted their production of The Playboy of the Western World online, and these shorts are perfect preparation.

This House

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This House by James Graham – National Theatre at Home (Olivier)

Seeing This House again, after several years, on a thoroughly absorbing broadcast of the National Theatre’s mid-2010s production, it is immediately clear how prescient it was. The chaos of national politics in the mid-70s  seemed light years away in 2014, but how arrogant that assumption seems now. The events of 2016-19 – bitter national division, two elections in quick succession, a minority government, MPs swapping parties, MPs not fit to attend being dragged to the Commons to vote, a grabbing of the ceremonial mace, even Big Ben stopping for repairs – were remarkably familiar to those who had watched Graham’s play, or lived through the real thing.

Graham charts the course of the two 1974 elections and their aftermath – a hung parliament and then a wafer-thin Labour majority – from inside the Government and Opposition Whip’s Offices in Parliament. There, the men (and one woman) charged with keeping first Wilson and then Callaghan in power, vote by agonising vote, play out an intense, personally costly drama. Graham is clearly fascinated by the unseen individuals at the heart of the machine, and by how quickly they were forgotten. He specialises in taking apparently obscure historical episodes, well within living memory, and showing us why we are wrong to have let them fade into the past. The drama he generates from the actions of obscure MPs who few could name without him is remarkable. Jeremy Herrin’s production was a big hit at the time, and stands up to rewatching very well indeed. The theatre of the Commons chamber is translated brilliantly to the vast Olivier stage, having opened in the small Dorfman Theatre (then called the Cottesloe), with the opposing benches filled with both actors and audience.

Some excellent performances drive the show – from Reece Dinsdale as master Labour operator Walter Harrison, Phil Daniels as Chief Whip Bob Mellish, Julian Wadham as his hilariously snooty opposite number, Lauren O’Neill as ‘token girl’ Ann Taylor (in real life, to become the first female Chief Whip and Graham’s main source), and Charles Edwards at Tory deputy Jack Weatherill (later to become famous as Speaker). Graham masterfully crams in  arcane procedure and forgotten events, while making every moment seems essential and leaving room for a great deal of humour.  But the drama is intense. Labour whips fight to save the country from a future they dreaded under Margaret Thatcher, their struggles made all the more poignant by our hindsight. Graham celebrates the role of those who sacrifice themselves for the greater good – there are several deaths in the course of the play just as there were in reality – and contrasts it with the individualism of those who think they are more important than the party, whether they are the Militants then infiltrating Labour or the thwarted MPs they unseat. The play ends with a moment of the highest historical , an event in which Walter Harrison shows himself to be entirely selfless – something that was apparently unknown until uncovered by Graham. The drama of his writing is supercharged by the knowledge that this is no fiction

The public tends to see Parliament as a combination of archaic, divorced from reality and irrelevant – then, as now. They also sort of love it, and show no inclination to  vote in favour of changing a strange system that relies on a version of honour amongst men that makes little sense, and doesn’t reflect the role of women much better now than 40 years ago. This House is a fine piece of writing – satisfying to the political geek, but also much more important than that, showing us how little we have changed and how much we still have to do.

 

The Battle of the Beanfield

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The Battle of the Beanfield – Breach Theatre, Vimeo

Available on Vimeo, The Battle of the Beanfield is the first show by Breach Theatre, now known for the excellent It’s True, It’s True, It’s True about Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi. As lockdown watching, it is an interesting exercise in time travel. It’s not often that you can see shows made for live performance five years ago, generally for a reason. Stripped of the moment, setting and context, theatre can appear very different than it seemed to those in the audience on the night. The single camera view at the back of the auditorium and the dodgy sound certainly undermine the experience. Breach Theatre used a combination of video and live action, and the atmosphere was certainly an important element of this show’s success. Reviewed very favourably at the time, it is now more of a context setting piece for the company’s progression. It’s True, It’s True, It’s True is a much more sophisticated show, and The Battle of the Beanfield in retrospect a much more studenty production.

Breach lighted on the grim and somewhat forgotten day in 1985 when hyped up and tooled up police, fresh from the Miner’s Strike frontlines, were dispatched to stop a convoy of 500 travellers from reaching Stonehenge and stopping the annual free festival. The entirely gratuitous violence they showed – attacking people and animals with whatever they could lay their hands on and burning their homes with their own lighters and taking their children away – is still shocking. So is the fact that 600 people were arrested and none convicted. It was pure, state-sponsored violence, as a former policeman who was there on the day discusses in detail on video. Breach have also interviewed Guardian correspondent Nick Davies, who travelled with the convoy, and one of the travellers. Together they paint a powerful picture of a dark day for democracy.

Breach approach this through the device of an historic-style battle re-enactment, although it is never clear why they have chosen this. Their attempts make them very unwelcome with landowners at the battle site, and their progress is cut with fictional scenes from a group of friends attending a contemporary midsummer festival at Stonehenge. The main problem is that they seem more interested in themselves than the events they are investigating. We want to know much more about what happened, the context, aftermath and implications 30 years later, but the theatrical devices get in the way. Nevertheless, it is a fine choice of subject from a company who really were just students at Warwick University at the time, exploring the possibilities of theatre and finding their way.

Barber Shop Chronicles

710 Barber Shop Chronicles at the National Theatre (c) Marc BrennerImage by Marc Brenner

Barber Shop Chronicles by Inua Ellams – National Theatre At Home (Dorfman)

The energy of Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles comes across clearly in this version, filmed for the National Theatre archives rather than for live broadcast. While the cameras remain still the cast of nine is a force of energy, driving the play from barber shop to barber shop, in London and several African countries. Ellams has written an all-male piece, but there is a clear justification – the exploration of the barber shop as a space for gathering, particularly although not exclusively for those who do not drink alcohol. His lively writing convincingly creates the atmosphere of social spaces that belong to the men who come, ostensibly for a hair cut, and stay to discuss anything and everything with one another.

The play is also unusual and important because it bring African voices to the British stage. From the opening scene, conducted in Nigerian accents so strong they are hard to make out, it is immediately obvious that we are hearing voices that simply do not feature in our theatre. Yet London is full of people from all the countries featured in the play – South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Kenya and Ghana. The action switches back and forth between a London barber and shops in cities across these countries, where Ellams shows his skills. He has based his work on 60 hours of recordings made on location, and he makes these settings seem the logical place for discussion of politics, the roles of men and women and of personal hopes and troubles while, in the background, the European Champions League Final plays out on TV between Barcelona and Chelsea. If anything unites characters from disparate places, it is their love of Chelsea FC.

The performers are, above all, part of a very strong ensemble but there are particular stand-outs in Patrice Naimamba as a cynical South African, Fisayo Akinade as a young man with a grievance, who finds out that the men around him are kinder than he ever imagined. Bijan Sheibani’s production is wave of enjoyment that also succeeds in tackling multiple questions about the identities of African and British African, and their complex relationships with two continents.

 

 

 

I, Peaseblossom / I, Banquo

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I, Peaseblossom and I, Banquo by Tim Crouch – on Vimeo

Tim Crouch’s series of performances as overlooked characters in Shakespeare is a fascinating body of work. He has been developing these one-man shows (with assistance) for more than 15 years, most recently with I, Cinna. I, Peaseblossom dates from 2004, part of the ‘Fairy, Monster, Ghost’ trilogy with I, Banquo and I, Caliban. The first two are, thanks to lockdown, available to watch free on Vimeo. I hope the latter emerges too but, in the meantime, I, Peaseblossom and I, Banquo should be very high on your remote theatre list. Filmed with a static camera from the back of a small auditorium, they feel very different to filmed-for-broadcast theatre, but the atmosphere and audience involvement is vivid, even when someone with a cough is sitting near the camera.

I, Peaseblossom features the fairy of that name from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, part of Titania’s retinue, who speaks a single word in the play: “Ready!” The show begins at 4.30am after the climactic wedding that ends Shakespeare’s play. Peaseblossom has been up all night blessing everything at his mistress’ command, and falls asleep among the wedding debris. He dreams the events of the play in a series of unsettling, Jungian visions. His dreams include of his teeth falling out, finding himself suddenly naked, and being thrust on stage in ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ not knowing the lines. His anxiety underlines the disturbing nature of events in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – drugging, transformations, confusion, mistreatment, and the use of others for entertainment – all in the name of love. Peaseblossom, in his dream, is rooted to the spot and forced to watch as the play takes its alarming course. Crouch engages expertly with children in the audience, enrolling them to play other parts, and creating an atmosphere of shared disbelief. However, the play’s friendly surface hides multiple questions about sexual power, privilege and colonialism, which are in no way diminished by their playful staging.

I, Banquo is a very different beast, more of a traditional monologue, less of an experiment in audience dialogue, and most definitely not for children. It is gripping and powerful, and highlights Crouch’s remarkable range as a writer and performer. Banquo is seen against a sheet of white paper, which he splatters with blood from a bucket as the grim events of Macbeth unfold. Discordant electric guitar played by Crouch’s own son as Banquo’s son Fleance, punctuates the story. The show is driven by the same disastrous, unstoppable momentum as Macbeth, and Crouch underlines the almost arbitrary nature of the play’s evil with repeated cries of “It could have been me, but it was you.” The betrayal of a man by his best friend is made real, and the breathless disbelief and growing horror racing through Banquo’s mind as he understands, too late, what is going on drives a unforgettable piece of theatre.

 

Frankenstein

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Frankenstein by Nick Dear after Mary Shelley – National Theatre (Olivier)

Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein was staged in 2012 when we did not yet know  how much more famous both he and co-lead Benedict Cumberbatch would become. Still, it was quite a coup for the National to bag this striking adaptation of Frankenstein. Two things make it particularly worth rewatching, while also underlining the limitations of watching theatre on YouTube. Nick Dear’s script goes back to Mary Shelley’s novel focusing on the source material in a way ignored by most versions. The story is, therefore, both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, showing us something we think we already know. It turns out we imagine it differently to Shelley. The production is, above all else, about the visual coups. Making spectacular use of the cavernous Olivier stage, the extreme geography of the play is communicated through simple, yet highly memorable designs – a glowing amniotic sac from which the Creature emerges, the translucent cottage in which he learns to speak, the open fields, Lake Geneva and, finally, the North Pole. Mark Tildesley’s set designs are truly epic, bolstered by a spectacular light installation by Bruno Poet consisting of thousands of flickering, blinding filament bulbs – the spark of life itself.

The roots of Boyle’s 2012 Olympic opening ceremony tableaux can be seen on stage, with groups of illustrative factory workers and locals setting the scene. There are times when the visual seems to dominate, squeezing out the drama for which we are kept waiting. The opening scene, as Cumberbatch (in this screening – he and Jonny Lee Miller swapped the roles of Doctor and Creature) learns to control his limbs, stand and walk, goes on for some time after we’ve got the message and feels like a rehearsal room exercise transposed to the stage in its entirety. However, when the key scenes arrive they are compelling. In particular, the Creature’s scenes with the excellent Karl Johnson as De Lacey, his blind teacher, are tense  and those with his fiancee Elizabeth (Naomie Harris) intensely awkward. Frankenstein creates humans, but completely fails to understand them. Dear adaptation cleverly focuses on the plight of an unnamed, unloved man who is made into the thing people fear through the hatred he encounters. The final scenes, as Doctor and Creature stumble blindly on across the Arctic tundra, are surreal and symbolic of their disastrous relationship that, once created, can never be unmade.

 

 

The RSC: 57 years of programme design

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. 

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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. 

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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-style windows. Despite that, the design is exceptionally bold.

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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.

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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.

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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 both 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 compliment. Its alarming purple and yellow colour scheme is saved by a cunningly chosen Garry Winogrand photo, which really sums up the play’s dark mood.

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The gilt and aquamarine design for Antony and Cleopatra (1992) heralds what was to come. The late 1990s were not the RSC’s best time, either on stage or on paper. 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 sinister figure wearing 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 a compellingly strange imagination. Hamlet (2001) makes better use of the photo-of-the-lead style (Sam West) than anything else from the time (he’s got a flick knife!) Pericles (2002) works well as a standalone idea, but has little to do with any wider company identity. 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 never-ending row of programmes.

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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.

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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. 

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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.