In the Bard’s Hometown, a Challenge for New Theater Leaders

Outside peak tourist season, there’s something a little uncanny about Stratford-upon-Avon, the English market town famous as William Shakespeare’s birthplace and home. On a visit last week, with only a trickle of foreign sightseers and a few locals around, the town’s cobbled streets, mock-Tudor pubs and quaint tearooms were eerily quiet. The occasional flock of schoolchildren on a field trip provided the closest thing to bustle.

And yet this tranquil place is home to one of the most venerable institutions of British cultural life: the Royal Shakespeare Company. Founded in 1961, with a mission to bring Shakespeare’s work to a contemporary audience, the company is renowned for its diverse and forward-thinking repertoire: It presents modern spins on Shakespeare’s plays alongside works by other playwrights, with a strong, craft-centric ethos geared toward nurturing emerging talent. With a roster of alumni that includes Judi Dench, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren, the company’s global prestige transcends its modest environs.

But when summer comes, the tourists will, too — and this presents a perennial challenge for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s leaders.

A lot of those visitors will want to see classical, period-dress productions that transport them to a picture-postcard England of yore, in keeping with Stratford’s kitschy trappings. But contemporary treatments of Shakespeare’s texts — eschewing naturalism, foregrounding psychological elements and topical resonances — are more in vogue. This is the conundrum facing Daniel Evans and Tamara Harvey, the troupe’s new co-artistic directors, as they embark on their first season in charge.

For the first few decades of its existence, the company had one foot in Stratford and the other in London. It abandoned its London base in 2001, when the artistic director at the time, Adrian Noble, dismantled its permanent acting troupe in favor of a flexible model, with performers on short-term contracts.

This made it easier to sign up big-name stars, but it upset actors’ unions and some theater purists, like the theater historian Simon Trowbridge. In his pointedly titled 2021 book “The Rise and Fall of the Royal Shakespeare Company,” Trowbridge argued that the company should have ditched Stratford, and instead made its primary home in London, where Britain’s largest theater audience is, only deploying the Stratford theaters during the busy summer season and perhaps at Christmas.

But the symbolic allure of Shakespeare’s hometown was too tempting to give up. When I met Evans and Harvey for an interview, they made a persuasive case for the merits of keeping a base in Stratford. Harvey previously spent seven years as the artistic director of Theatr Clwyd, an arts center in Wales; Evans, a former actor with two Olivier Awards to his name, enjoyed fruitful spells at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1990s and 2000s, and was the artistic director of the Chichester Theater Festival before taking his current job.

From left: Brandon Bassir, Luke Thompson, Abiola Owokoniran and Eric Stroud in “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”Credit…Johan Persson

Through a window in one of the Stratford rehearsal rooms, Evans said, “you can see the church where Shakespeare was baptized and is now buried, and through another window you can see the school he went to, and through another you can see the house he bought for his wife and family later in life.”

“Having rehearsed myself as a young actor in that space,” he added, there was something to “relish and savor about coming to make theater in the place where you can see and experience those things — not in a way that is touristic, but in a way that brings you closer to the source.”

Harvey said that there was a “thing that happens when you are in a place that is not your everyday existence — the focus that comes from that, and the sense of company. Which is something that we can offer that London theaters can’t. It’s a very American model in some ways: America has an extraordinary network of theaters outside of major metropolises.”

There has always been a strong U.S. connection to the theater at Stratford. In the Victorian era, the town’s burgeoning tourist industry was sustained by a constant flow of trans-Atlantic Shakespeare pilgrims.

“It was actually Americans who first got it,” Harvey said. In the 19th century, when two local brewery magnates, Edward Fordham Flower and Charles Flower, proposed building a theater in Stratford, “the British public and the British theater world essentially said ‘that idea’s nonsense,’” Harvey said. The duo then “went across the Atlantic, and it was American philanthropists and supporters who got the idea, and came on board, and made it possible,” she added. The result was the Shakespeare Memorial Theater, built in 1879 and later renamed the Royal Shakespeare Theater.

Today, that playhouse is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s flagship. Elsewhere in Stratford, the company also runs the 400-seat Swan Theater and a small studio theater called the Other Place. A new outdoor auditorium, the Holloway Garden Theater, will begin hosting outdoor performances from June.

The program for Evans and Harvey’s debut season includes a Ukrainian production of “King Lear” and an abridged, 80-minute outdoor “As You Like It.” A period-dress “Othello” in the fall will cater to more conservative tastes. The non-Shakespeare offerings include a retelling of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1777 aristocratic comedy, “The School for Scandal,” and new plays on themes such as environmental politics (“Kyoto”) and language lessons (“English”). The key, Evans said, was “balance and variety.”

The season began in April with a spirited take on Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” In this early comedy, regarded as something of an anomaly because of its bathetic, unresolved ending, Ferdinand, the king of Navarre (Abiola Owokoniran) and his three favorite noblemen (Luke Thompson, Eric Stroud and Brandon Bassir) undertake a vow of abstinence — “to fast, to study, to see no woman.”

From left: Ankur Bahl, Bettrys Jones and Dee Ahluwalia in “The Buddha of Suburbia.”Credit…Steve Tanner

That is promptly derailed by the arrival of a princess (Melanie-Joyce Bermudez) and her retinue (Ioanna Kimbook, Amy Griffith and Sarita Gabony). In contravention of their oath, the men make advances on the sly and the wary women prank them to test their mettle. Cue a medley of exquisite tomfoolery, featuring bawdy badinage, dubious love-poems, mistaken identity, visual gags, a chaotic play-within-a-play and lots of linguistic whimsy.

In this production, directed by Emily Burns and running at the Royal Shakespeare Theater through May 18, the principal characters are reimagined as 21st-century tech mogul types, and the setting is a Hawaiian island retreat. It’s a clever update, not least because the men’s masochistic undertaking — to forego pleasure for the sake of an obscurely defined idea of personal advancement — prefigures the self-optimization fetish that today’s social media gurus are hustling.

But the production doesn’t strain too hard for relevance, and needn’t jar with more traditionally minded audiences. (And the nuts and bolts of seduction haven’t changed all that much in 500 years.) Ultimately, it’s the script, ably brought to life by a talented group of actors, that does the work. Thompson (of “Bridgerton” fame) is the pick of the bunch as Berowne, one of the king’s noblemen, delivering his lines with satirical brio and a wonderful range of complacent smirks. He has one of those faces that suggest mischief, even when at rest.

The Royal Shakespeare Theater, which seats over 1,000 people, was built in the 19th century. It reopened after a major revamp in 2010.Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

Youthful yearning is also on the menu at the Swan Theater, in a new adaptation of the British writer Hanif Kureshi’s coming-of-age novel, “The Buddha of Suburbia,” directed and adapted by Emma Rice with input from Kureshi himself. Set in late-1970s London, against a backdrop of political turbulence and racial strife, it follows a young British Pakistani man, Karim, as he grapples with the emotional fallout of his parents’ failing marriage while negotiating his passage to manhood — through music, drugs and heartbreak — before he finds his calling in the theater. (The show plays in repertoire through June 1.)

Rachana Jadhav’s set is a cross-section of a ’70s suburban dwelling, featuring an orange-red sofa, a floral-patterned stair tread and several mirror balls. When we first meet Karim’s yogi father, Haroun (Ankur Bahl), he is wearing nothing but a pair of Y-fronts. His very first action, removing a piece of fluff from his bellybutton, sets the tone for this playful and irreverent romp. The sexual content — of which there is plenty — is rendered with disarming, pantomimic silliness: bananas to suggest erections; party poppers let off to signify the moment of climax.

Dee Ahluwalia is well cast as Karim, with just the right blend of pretty-boy looks and callow impudence. When he periodically breaks off into first-person, audience-facing narration, he has the winking, conspiratorial aspect of an experienced crooner working the crowd between songs. Ewan Wardrop is outstanding as the creepy theater director who takes him under his wing, and Bettrys Jones excels in two very different roles: affectingly poignant as Karim’s long-suffering mother, Margaret, and riotously eccentric as his mercurial love interest, Eleanor.

Though the play touches on somber topics — racist violence, the fragmented lives of the migrant diaspora — it is anything but earnest, with a jaunty, naïve quality that echoes the reckless esprit of early adulthood. “The Buddha of Suburbia” doesn’t have the sentence-level brilliance of the Bard — it’s more Ealing Comedy than Shakespeare — but there is something of his spirit in its ribald energy, and it doesn’t feel out to of place in Stratford. There was lots of laughter, and the mood was buzzing as people filed out.

Both of these shows revolved around youth, and both went down well with a predominantly senior audience. Their freshness and exuberance augured well for the coming season. The hope must be that the more traditional audiences will move with the times, and come around to new visions. You can’t please all of the people all of the time — but you can do your best to take them with you. And if not, there are always the tearooms.

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