Fear of a Brit Planet

by Rob Weinert-Kendt

in Critics & Reviews

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The New York Times‘ Charles Isherwood raised some hackles with a perfectly reasonable piece back in February positing that New Yorkers should not only welcome the Royal Shakespeare Company’s upcoming 2011 residency at the Park Avenue Armory as part of the Lincoln Center Festival but use the momentum, and the venue, to inspire Stateside efforts in doing classical repertory work, which New York City conspicuously lacks, its fine classics-producing companies notwithstanding. Most who objected to Isherwood’s piece seemed to think he was dissing the quality of classical work on offer in New York, overlooking that the word “repertory” is really more of a quantitative distinction.

Another objection had to do with the sense that RSC is out to re-colonize America through its theatres: “I help fundraise for a small NYC theater that produces Shakespeare. I can tell you that this RSC thing is going to make my job way harder than it already is,” wrote one anonymous commenter on Playgoer, who went on to point out that the while the RSC is heavily subsidized at home, it’s busy raising money for its trans-Atlantic outreach through an American nonprofit, RSC America.

Less reported, except in passing, is the RSC’s ongoing relationship with U.S. colleges: Ohio State University, which is listed as a co-presenter of next summer’s Armory lineup, has been working with RSC on an arts education initiative, and as I write this, the RSC is encamped at the University of Michigan, working alongside American actors to develop three fascinating new pieces, presumably for the RSC’s next season, all of them investigating topics and characters from Shakespeare’s time: There’s a reconstruction of Cardenio, a “lost” play by Shakespeare and John Fletcher, based on a character from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and slated to be produced in both Spanish and English; a play by David Edgar (Nicholas Nickleby, Pentecost, and the Oregon Shakes/Berkeley Rep commission Continental Divide) about the role of the controversial Lancelot Andrewes in the translation of the King James Bible, and a new play by Helen Edmundson about Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, a 17th-century South American nun and author.

While it’s certainly true that the American Shakespeare field is already very crowded, a visit from our colleagues across the pond is seldom wasted, either for its own theatrical sake or for what it inspires in us. Look, for instance, at the way New York’s 59E59 branded itself with its annual Brits Off Broadway festival as a place for smaller British productions to find a New York berth—and then built on the idea last year with a festival of imports from America’s regional theatres, titled “America’s Off-Broadway.” As our young nation discovered some number of years ago, sometimes it takes a few Brits to light a fire under us Yanks to show ’em how it’s done.

-Rob

Rob Weinert-Kendt is associate editor of American Theatre Magazine. He also co-runs the site StageGrade.com and is father to a strapping infant named Oliver.