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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Royal Shakespeare Company and BAM: A Brief History

Back in 1969, when Harvey Lichtenstein saw Peter Brook’s legendary Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Stratford-upon-Avon, he swooned. Lichtenstein went on record in his oral history for the BAM Archives to say that “if I had to pick one performance of all the ones I’ve seen that affected me more than anything else, it would be that performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Lichtenstein brought Brook’s production of Midsummer, with Patrick Stewart as Snout, to BAM in 1971, and over 40 years later, the RSC still regularly returns to BAM.

Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

An important part of BAM’s reinvention in the 1970s—aside from supporting the breakthroughs of a new generation of New York artists—was importing a diverse and exciting British theater scene. Throughout the mid-70s BAM presented repertory runs from the likes of the Actors Company (which featured Ian McKellen as Edgar in King Lear), the Young Vic, and the RSC.

Ian McKellen in King Lear

The spring season of 1974 was particularly heavy with British theater. One of the highlights was the RSC production of Sylvia Plath, directed by the current RSC associate artistic director, Barry Kyle. With a script made up entirely of language from Plath’s work, the piece examined themes of poetic creation, motherhood, fractured identity, and madness.

The 1974 season was so successful that the RSC returned for repertory engagements in the spring of both ’75 and ’76, including David Jones’ production of Gorky’s Summerfolk. Lichtenstein thought it was so successful that he tapped Jones a few years later for the position of artistic director of the BAM Theater Company, BAM’s short-lived experiment at maintaining an in-house repertory company largely modeled on the RSC.

David Jones' Summerfolk

Almost 20 years went by before the RSC returned to BAM, with Adrian Noble’s production of The Winter’s Tale. The RSC came back four years later, in 1998, for its longest BAM repertory season to date, which included Cymbeline, Everyman, Hamlet, Henry VIII, and Krapp’s Last Tape, the latter of which was directed by and starred Edward Petherbridge.  

When the RSC brings its production of Julius Caesar to the Harvey next month, it will be the first time it has visited BAM since 2007, when we presented its productions of King Lear and The Seagull (both under the direction of Trevor Nunn). While we’ve been busy since 2007, we’ve missed the RSC terribly. Don’t get us wrong—we like our long distance relationship, we just don’t like going too long without seeing the RSC up on our stages, invigorating the Shakespearian canon.

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