What happened to the RSC's long ensemble?

The RSC long ensemble gala in the Swan 2011. The gala was to raise funds for James Gale and his family.

Updated 6th January 2013. Thanks to updates from RSC long ensemble audience members.

After I saw Debbie Korley and Dharmesh Patel in the RSC’s young people’s King Lear at the Theatre Royal in York recently, I started to wonder what the rest of the RSC’s long ensemble were dong now. I had seen some of long ensemble working in the theatre over the past year, and heard about other things they’d done since the long ensemble project ended after a residency New York in the Summer of 2011. The long ensemble was made up of 44 actors and started in Stratford in the Spring of 2009 with As You Like It (dir by Michael Boyd) and The Winter’s Tale (dir by David Farr). These two plays were joined in the Summer of 2011 by Lucy Bailey’s Julius Caesar. For me the success of the long ensemble came the year after with Rupert Goold’s Romeo and Juliet and David Farr’s King Lear. Both plays played with time and space and for me the plays worked well with the transition from the Courtyard theatre to the new RST (via Newcastle and the Roundhouse). It was the long ensemble that opened the new RST and brought the RSC home – so to speak. The partnership between Jonjo O’Neill and Sam Troughton, as Mercutio and Romeo, brought an energy to the project, but also demonstrated how a partnership built up over a period of time could work so well.

I am sure that it was hoped that the actors and directors would move on to other things, and that some would return to the RSC.

There’s been a few long ensemble reunions in 2012. The first was the Duchess of Malfi reuniting Adam Burton and Tunji Kasim at the Old Vic. Another reunion was down the road from the Old Vic, at the Young Vic, where Sam Troughton, Mariah Gale and Gruffudd Glyn could be seen in Three Sisters. As well as Three Sisters it seems that Sam Troughton has been very busy since he left the long ensemble. He was in A Streetcar Named Desire in Liverpool, and Love, Love, Love at the Royal Court, as well as The Town on television. Mariah Gale is currently in Gruesome Playground Injuries at the Gate Theatre.

Later in the year, at the Old Vic, after being in Children’s Children at the Almeida, Darrell D’Silva was in the very successful Hedda Gabler. Forbes Masson will be playing Banquo alongside James McAvoy’s Macbeth Westminster studios. was in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, plating Mr Tumnus, for Threesixty Theatre in Kensington Gardens. The production was directed by long ensemble director Rupert Goold. He also starred in the Belgrade Theatres Crackers. There were also glimpses of Forbes supporting Melanie Masson’s on ITV’s X Factor.

The RSC women seemed to have done well since the long ensemble project ended and I enjoyed, Noma Dumezweni, Katy Stephens and Mariah Gale’s audio performances as the three witches from Macbeth in the Staging Shakespeare exhibition at the British Museum. Noma Dumezweni was also in Bola Agbaje’s play, Belong, at the Royal Court in the Spring of 2012 and will be in The Feast at the young Vic from February. I managed to see Katy Stephens, who was excellent in Calixto Bieito’s Forests, but missed her playing Laura in The Father at the Belgrade theatre in Coventry. Katy is currently playing the fairy in the Belgrade Theatre’s Sleeping Beauty. Kirsty Woodward was fantastic in Kneehigh’s Steptoe and Son, which I saw at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and at the start of 2012, I saw her in The Way of the World Sheffield Crucible.

Kathryn Hunter joined the long ensemble in the second year of the project, and made a quick exit in the middle of the Roundhouse season. She went on to revive her as Peter the Red Ape in Kafka’s Monkey, which I thought was a stunning piece of physical theatre and then returned to the RSC in A Tender Thing this autumn.

One thing that has been surprising is how few of the long ensemble returned to Stratford after the long ensemble project finished. Though Jonjo O’Neill returned to the RSC in a very successful Richard III in the summer of 2012, it has taken awhile for a group of actors to return to the RSC to work together. Indeed, it has taken over a year for four members of the long ensemble to work together again in the Swan in Stratford. Adam Burton, Paul Hamilton, Patrick Romer, and James Tucker are now back in Stratford performing in the long ensemble in the Swan and Ansu Kabia is playing Nim in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Greg Hicks will return to the RSC in 2013 to play Claudius in Hamlet. Oliver Ryan is another member of the long ensemble to return to Stratford for the 1013 Summer season, and long ensemble director, David Farr, will be directing Hamlet.

Sadly Peter Shorey and James Gale have passed away.

And what happened to the other long ensemble directors? After directing a very good Taming of the Shrew for the RSC Winter season 2012, Lucy Bailey returns to the RSC for the Winter 2013 to direct The Winter’s Tale. Greg Doran,who directed the long ensemble interlude, Morte D’Arthur, took over the RSC as Artistic Director in September 2012 and I am now awaiting the announcement of his first season. He is currently directing The Orphan of Zhao in the Swan.

And the Artistic director, Michael Boyd what’s he doing now? Well, he left the RSC in September 2012, but his final production as a director at the RSC, Boris Godunov is now in the Swan.

I think some people felt that the long ensemble was too large to work well, and that many of the actors didn’t really get chance to use to really shine. However, the long ensemble did give some actors a chance to play a range of parts. Sam Troughton showed he could play both the lead and bit parts with great skill. Indeed, he produced was exceptional as a Lord in The Winter’s Tale and entertaining as an energetic and angry Romeo in Rupert Goold’s Romeo and Juliet. It’s no surprise to see that Sam Troughton has gone on to play a range of parts since leaving the RSC, and his Mercutio, Jonjo O’Neill, has also shown his range and he is getting great reviews at the National Theatre in The Effect,

Other actors, who showed some promise in the long ensemble do not seem to have done other things. For example, Dyfan Dwyfor played a much more emotional Romeo than Troughton, when I saw him understudy Troughton early in the Straford run. I have not seen that Dwyfor has been in the theatre, since leaving the RSC and even the long ensemble has not changed the transient nature of most actors’ lives. I am hoping that Debbie Korley and Dharmesh Patel will go on to do more than the Young People’s Shakespeare. Both have demonstrated through this vehicle that they can do more than waiting women and bit parts and I look forward to seeing them in other things in the future.

I will have missed many long ensemble appearances, so please let me know of any others that are not here, or about anything you’ve seen with an actor from the long ensemble in it.

Update 10th March 2013

I have recently see Noma Dumezweni in Feast at the Young Vic theatre and Sam Troughton in Bull at Sheffield Crucible. Katy Stephens and David Rubin are also returning to Stratford over the Summer to work in the Swan.


My Long ensemble blogs

The Winter’s Tale and As You Like It

As You Like It, Newcastle 2009

Katy Stephens’ Hair

Julius Caesar

The RSC ensemble debate

King Lear

Romeo and Juliet

RSC, South Bank Show

The RSC Comes Home

Romeo and Juliet again

Antony and Cleopatra part 1

Antony and Cleopatra part 2

RSC Revealed

New Writing at the Hampstead Theatre

Full details about the long ensemble project can be found here.

Much Ado About Nothing (aka Club Tropicana Much A Dr Who About Nothing) Wyndham's Theatre – 16th May to 3rd September

IMG 0477
When the party is over what is left?

It’s a little ironic that down the road from the Wyndham’s Theatre in the National Portrait Gallery’s Now and Then: Portraits by John Swannell exhibition is a portrait of a young George Michael in his Wham days looking extremely handsome and tanned. This image is very in keeping with the aesthetic of the eighties focused and Wham themed Much Ado About Nothing at the Wyndham’s.

There is no doubt that this production is a product for London’s commercial West End. It has star casting in Catherine Tate and David Tennant as Beatrice and Benedick. Tate and Tennant have worked together not only on the popular TV show Doctor Who, but also as DJs on the Jonathan Ross Radio 2 show, and on Catherine Tate’s own TV sketch show. Not far away from the Wyndham’s theatre is the ABBA themed Mamma Mia at the Prince of Wales Theatre and more or less opposite is Priscilla at the Cambridge Theatre based on Kylie Minogue’s songs.  Much Ado About Nothing at the Wyndham’s production takes Shakespeare’s words and presents them as Wham-like and other eighties tracks, so overall this production could be seen as a Wham themed production in the vein of the popular musical shows around it. We even get men in uniforms, which is a reminder of George Michael and Andrew Ridgely in those pilot uniforms at the end of their Club Tropicana video.  There were moments I thought I heard echoes of ‘Careless Whisper’, and the finale is a little like a singing along to Wham’s  ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’. In taking this approach, the production is in keeping with much of what is happening around it in the commercial West End.

Like Rupert Goold’s current production of The Merchant of Venice, Josie Rourke’s Much Ado About Nothing fuses popular culture with Shakespeare. This fusion works on a very different level from Goold’s Merchant of Venice , which focuses in on the emotional journey of one character (Portia).  In contrast,  Rourke’s production explores the surface of the play. This is not a criticism, because I think the cast make it look easier than it actually is, and are able to play the comedy in the text and take an audience with them. I doubt that celebrity on its own is enough to move an audience, including those at their first Shakespeare play, to rise to their feet every night and demand four curtain calls.

I blogged about this production on its very first night here, and have had a bit of time after seeing it again to reflect a little more on some of the detail.

The production is set in the early eighties on Gibraltar with the men returning from the Falklands War. There’s the Princess Diana wedding dress complete with creases and her engagement ring. There’s a male character wearing a Margaret Thatcher mask and a reminder of the spitting image puppet than the real Margaret Thatcher.  There is also a range of beach wear, including culottes, that have thankfully  been left behind in that decade.

The production really reflects a world turned upside down that the text suggests, and  before things are returned to normal. In the masked ball, there’s the cross dressing, which we see in other Shakespeare comedies, to suggest this inversion. For most of the production, Beatrice wears Dexys Midnight Runners style dungarees,  and at the masked ball she dresses as one of the Blue’s Brothers. At the masked ball, Benedick is in drag (as Miss Piggy I think) and in red doc martens (those that know me would find the red doc martens a little ironic).  At the ball, there is also Tina Turner, Darth Vader and Princess Leia.  The only character not in fancy dress is the sinister Don John (Elliot Levey) hiding in the shadows and darkness, and still in his naval uniform.  It is very noticeable that Claudio (Tom Bateman) is dressed as Adam Ant’s Prince Charming and Hero (Sarah MacRae) wears a Princess Diana mask at the masked ball. In many ways these roles become a comment on the characters, and the over elaborate flashiness and superficiality of the new romantics identity suggests there is not much below the surface in Claudio’s own character. I couldn’t help thinking that though all ends up with a happy ending and Hero has clearly got her man, and that the future may not be so happy with a man who has presented his dark angry side at least three times in three days. His anger at Don Pedro’s (Adam James) wooing of Hero at the ball, his response to Hero at the wedding, and the way he responds to her mock death. I thought Sarah MacRae’s Hero was a very interesting portrayal. She works with the silences very well especially in Act 1, when Beatrice does all the talking and won’t give her the opportunity to speak. It’s a feisty portrayal and one that moves away from the assumption Hero is weak and passive.  This Hero is clearly taken with Claudio from the start, and like Portia (Susannah Fielding) in Goold’s Merchant of Venice is determined to get her man.

Alcohol plays a large part in the production. We see a lot of social drinking, and even from the moment from when the messenger (Leo Staar) arrives guests are handed bottles and cans of beer. This heavy drinking results in hangovers and Benedick delivers his soliloquy at the start of 2.3 clearly suffering from the night before.  His state gives a rationale for his melancholy and derogatory remarks about marriage and makes it easier to believe that he changes his mind just a few minutes later. Drinking in his production moves quickly from a fun social pastime and underlies some of the darker moments in the production. Claudio drinks to excess from a bottle of spirits to forget when he thinks Hero is dead, and Leonato (Jonathan Coy) is made bold to challenge Don Pedro (Adam James) through drinking too much champagne at the non wedding reception. Both Margaret (Natalie Thomas) and Claudio’s drinks are spiked so that they can easily be tricked by the manipulative Borachio (Alex Beckett) and Don John.

The hen party and stag nights are shown on stage and take place at either side of the revolving stage, and are complete with male and female strippers. This is a device to present the ‘chamber window’ to the audience, as this is normally off stage action. In presenting the audience with an explanation of what Claudio and Don Pedro see shifts some of the blame away from Claudio for his callous reaction to the denouncement at the wedding. At the end of the day Don John’s plot is about getting revenge for Claudio’s part in his downfall and he doesn’t really care that Hero is caught up and discredited in the scheme.

Beatrice and Benedick sit slightly aside from the other characters in this production. Benedick is never really part of the other men’s group and this is often seen alone such as before his gulling scenes, in the church, and when he attempts to serenades Beatrice with the boy’s toy organ.  This isolation makes David Tennant’s dramatic entrance in a golf buggy workable, and is a solution to getting him on stage, and deal with the celebrity moment – that’s why I stress it is David Tennant’s entrance here. There’s a lovely moment on the hen/stag nights when Beatrice and Benedick slightly separate from the other groups catch a glimpse of each other.

There is almost a competition going on between Benedick and Beatrice to get the most laughs in their gulling scenes, which are both centred around a room which is the process of being painted. Benedick’s scene works through the use of slapstick, his response to the men setting him up, and the clever use of the revolving stage which presents different views of him and the men who can clearly see him. An outcome is that Benedick ends up covered in paint. Indeed, this presents Benedick with a beard made of paint making later jokes about his beard and barbers more relevant. The boy is used well in this production, and his part in getting the book for Benedick is very funny in the gulling scene.

Tennant has a wonderful sense of timing that allows him to pause just long enough to get the laughs. In his prose soliloquy at the end of the gulling, he is clearly working with the audience taking them as far as he can, and picking up on a stray giggle in order to direct the line ‘the world must be peopled to’ to that audience member. Tennant warms up the audience for Tate to enter.  Benedick has fallen in love with Beatrice at her most unattractive moment and she enters tugging at her bikini bottoms to release them from her crutch. There’s an interesting use of a stage harness in Beatrice’s gulling scene, which was altered after the first night, to give the actions more of a rationale. It is a comedy after all, and stage business in keeping with pantomime is not amiss.

The ‘kill Claudio’ moment is enormously difficult for Tate to play as she chooses to move away from the sadness she feels at Hero’s shaming, to show her joy at Benedick’s declaration of love for her. Tate uses the moment to demonstrate her sketch show faces, which are very funny, but then she has to calm the audience down and move the tone back to a very serious one. In the previews the audience laughed at the ‘kill Claudio’ line, and that just doesn’t work,  but I noted Tate had worked hard at this by using a long pause and was getting the stunned silent response the line needs in later performances.

The Dogberry scenes are very funny and work well as a mirror to the other characters. Dogberry (John Ramm) is proud of his role as the leader of the watch and sees himself as a Rambo character. He may mix up his words and be a little convoluted, but when he arrives with his rifle and as the curtain falls for the interval, you really feel that Conrad and Borachio’s days are numbered – boom!.  If only Leonato had listened to Dogberry when he clambers over the chairs set out for the wedding to reveal all.

The inclusion of Innogen didn’t work for me. It means she has to be silent in the church schemes and yet during our glimpse of the hen night she’s flirting with the male stripper, which I think might be out of character.

I think that Adam James’ Don Pedro is a relaxed approach to the role and by doing this James has created a man who has lost control of discipline and is too at ease with his men. I think he really does want to marry Beatrice and is rather hurt by her crass rejection. His leadership has broken down, and he encourages the drinking at the stag night, sets up the gulling and takes his eye off his brother. The latter is a problem because Don Pedro’s reactions to Don John have indicated that he does not trust him. The brothers are not reconciled in this production, and it is also clear that Benedick does not like Don John either and ignores his entrance in 1.1. Don Pedro does stand beside Claudio though, and takes some responsibility for his part in the shaming of Hero.

I have read in places some criticism of audiences for laughing at the play and giving it a standing ovation. I think it is a little unfair to be critical because  some audience members may have a frame of reference that they might bring to the performance e.g. they have seen other productions, or know the text has been cut. Other members of the audience are bringing their own frames of references from popular culture with them to the production. I don’t see a problem with people enjoying seeing Tate applying her toolkit of faces and voices to this role, or revelling in the sparring between Benedick and Beatrice and seeing this as an echo of the Donna/Doctor combination in Doctor Who. I am not sure I want to be critical of audiences enjoying an evening watching Shakespeare.

What this production does really well is give a sense of the excess at the beginning of the eighties. It’s a moment with a Tory government and the rise of the commercial West End musical. When the party is over what will be left?  I am aware I am complicit in the setting of the ticket prices, because I have bought the tickets at the high prices. As much I was interested by the way this production worked in the context of the West End, I thought that it was very expensive. In many ways my visits to this production are being subsidised by all the cheaper tickets I have bought for other productions (including a groundling ticket for the Globe production so I can see that more than once).  If everyone was charging this amount for a stalls ticket, my theatre going days would be over very quickly.

Reviews and Previews

My first night comments

BBC News – David Tennant and Catherine Tate reu…David Tennant & Catherine Tate Star in Much Ado…Express.co.uk – Home of the Daily and Sunday Express | Stage :: Much Ado About Nothing, 4/5 Wyndham’s, London. Tel: 0844 482 5120Tate Nabs Tennant – – Blog – Whatsonstage.comTwo Ados | The SpectatorAbout the Contributors – Theaternewsonline .comDavid Tennant and Catherine Tate interview for ‘Much Ado About Nothing – TelegraphTennant and Tate reunite for Much Ado | The Off…Divergent Takes on ‘Much Ado’ – NYTimes.comFrom Doctor Who to Much Ado for Tennant and Tat…Tennant and Tate win over critics – News, Entertainment – Belfasttelegraph.co.ukBBC News – David Tennant and Catherine Tate to …Much ado about 1980s Gibraltar | Stage | guardian.co.ukCan David Tennant and Catherine Tate make Shakespeare the year’s hottest ticket? – Features, Theatre & Dance – The IndependentThe Stage / Shenton’s View / Spoiler alerts (and spoiling for a fight)

Kafka's Monkey (Young Vic Theatre, 1st June 2011)

I really enjoyed Kathryn Hunter’s performance as the Fool in the RSC’s King Lear and was intrigued by her performance as Cleopatra, but I thought Hunter’s performance as Red Peter the Ape was amazing.  It’s one of those performances that just stuns because what happens in the performance is so unexpected.

I’d never been to the Young Vic before, but with unreserved seating I was keen to get there early so that I got a good seat. It’s a lovely intimate theatre,  I was lucky to get a seat in the middle on the front row.

The performance was startling and exciting, while at the same time mesmerising, because it made you feel you were staring at Kathryn Hunter performing, rather than just watching.  I was engrossed for the hour that Hunter is on stage.  Hunter manages to use her body to great effect to portray the tragic story of Red Peter the Ape.  Her character has supposedly become human, but the animal behaviours are  slowly exposed. Tragically, many of the behaviours have been learnt from humans. Alcohol is used as a crutch to give Red Peter confidence to speak in public, and he takes small swigs from his hip flask, but it becomes clear through the performance that alcohol is also at the centre of his misery. As the human falls apart, Hunter is able to move her arms into incredible positions to suggest an ape’s body, but as the play moves on, she becomes the ape.  It is a transformation from one state to another, but as Hunter is a woman playing a man, this adds another layer to the performance.  At one point Hunter does the splits, and then stays in that position for some time before curling her leg behind her head. Even though the story is very dark, there was also humour in Hunter’s performance and some very good audience interaction, which at times relies on members of the audience to respond at the right time. I thought what Hunter did so well was to engage with the audience, whist at the same time focusing on the physical aspects of her performance. I must say that this is one of the best pieces of theatre that I have ever seen.

IMG 0473

Further Information



The Stage / Reviews / Kafka’s Monkey

More from Between the Acts

On Kathryn Hunter Leaving the long ensemble

RSC Antony and Cleopatra

RSC King Lear and comment on Hunter’s Fool

Being there when…Was I at the opening of the RST this time?

When anyone says that they were at that last night of Wigan Casino, I always wanted to know what it was like, because being there on such a momentous occasion seemed really special. For example, I was fascinated to know how did it feel when the three before eight played for the last time?  I found out that the famous Northern Soul venue ended up having three last nights, and so being at the last night didn’t seem as awe inspiring as I first thought.  It is starting to feel a bit like this with the opening of the RST, and that even though I think I was at the opening night of the RST, and I would be able to talk about this for years to come, I was probably at one of many opening nights. There was an opening last November (which I wasn’t at), and then there was the RSC coming home on 23rd February 2011, when the Company performed King Lear. Last Friday (4th March), I managed to get returns to see Katy Stephens (taking over from Kathryn Hunter) play Cleopatra in the newly opened Swan and found myself at another opening of the RST. This time the Queen was visiting and apparently she unveiled a plaque, saw Sam Troughton and Mariah Gale perform the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, and had lunch in the Rooftop Restaurant.

I had expected to see one Queen in performance and found myself catching a glimpse of another dressed in cerise as she undertook a brief walkabout outside the new RST.  Not far behind her, I spotted Artistic Director, Michael Boyd and Associate Greg Doran dressed very smartly in suits.  I think the last time I saw the Queen was in 1977, the year of Sex Pistols ‘God Save the Queen’ and the Silver Jubilee.

IMG 0359

In coming home to the Swan, Antony and Cleopatra has had to be adapted for a new space and the creative team had opted for a minimalist stage set.  Gone was Cleopatra’s accent, her many costume changes and Mardian’s wig. The rustic metallic tower had also disappeared and the staging utilised the rawness of the theatre itself as the backdrop worked very well. In the Swan you can still hear actors creeping behind the audience to make their entrances and exits, one of the features that made the Courtyard a little special.

Not everyone has swapped round as they did when Katy Stephens played the role in Newcastle, but Greg Hicks is  still understuding Thidias and still giving a fantastic performance. I know that when a company has to use understudies, there is more doubling than usual, but some of the doubling in this production doesn’t work for me. Maybe it is because I  have followed this long ensemble for its two years and can now easily recognise actors, and start to question why is Mardian in Rome? Why is the Soothsayer taking notes? Why is Octavia fighting for the Romans (and at one point why is she in Egypt)? Why does Scarus change sides so often?

Katy Stephens made a really good job of playing Cleopatra and presented her own Cleopatra, which wasn’t an impression of Kathryn Hunter’s physical performance. This was a much more confident performance than the one that Katy Stephens gave in Newcastle, when she had to go on at short notice. She played up Cleopatra’s sexuality and emotional vulnerability very well. Katy Stephens is very good at producing wet eyes and she managed to present this here as well. I think that there was a chemistry between her and Darrell D’Silva’s Antony. Their eventual  deaths were very powerful and this was the first time I saw this production and felt sad at the end.

“Remember if e’er thou look’dst on Majesty”.

On Kathryn Hunter leaving the RSC ensemble

I was really sorry to hear that Kathryn Hunter had resigned from the RSC midway through the Roundhouse run. I realise that she had not had some good reviews with some reviews being really cutting, but I had thought that her work with the current RSC ensemble had been really thought provoking. Her two performances as the Fool and as Cleopatra stayed with me and made me think much more about the text in ways I hadn’t before seeing the productions. After seeing the production of Antony and Cleopatra for the first time, I wasn’t sure how to respond to the production, but I think that was what I really liked about it in the end was that sense of not being able to draw conclusions and continuing to think about what I’d seen.  What was really great about Hunter’s portrayal of Cleopatra was that she played against type and this worked really well for me. What came across in Hunter’s portrayal was the way she brought out Cleopatra’s manipulative streak, her power as a female ruler and  played on the way she constantly changed her mind. As Lear’s Fool, she brought out the childlike side of the character to great effect. It felt like I was watching the child staying a Lear’s side as long as possible, and in despair seeing the person s/he loved breaking down.

When I saw King Lear at the Roundhouse a week ago, I thought that Sophie Russell did a decent job as the Fool, but just doesn’t have that ability to suddenly appear and take over the stage in the way that Hunter did.  I am looking forward to seeing Katy Stephens as Cleopatra again, after seeing her in Newcastle having to go on stage at very short notice, and it will be interesting to see how she makes the part her own after having the chance to rehearse.

My Review of  RSC King Lear

My review of RSC Antony and Cleopatra