The Bard, and His Roadies: The Royal Shakespeare Company Comes to New York

7504 300 The Bard, and His Roadies: The Royal Shakespeare Company Comes to New York

Noma Dumezweni in Julius Caesar, Royal Shakespeare Company.

“All the world’s a stage,” a hoary cliché, is also, it’s worth remembering, the start of a soliloquy in William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. In New York these days, it threatens to shift from Shakespearian metaphor to Shakespearian fact.

So what to think about a British company that comes to town to put on yet more Shakespeare—and even ships over its own theater?

This city lately feels nearly overrun by the Bard. There is of course the Public Theater, né New York Shakespeare Festival, mounting high-gloss stagings of his work in the park each summer and an occasional but increasing number of them at its Lafayette Street home. There’s a higher-gloss staging on Broadway roughly once a season. There’s BAM and Sam Mendes’s Bridge Project, bringing a steady stream of transatlantic Shakespeare to BAM Harvey, and there is also solo BAM, which imported three British Bard productions this year without any help from Mr. Mendes.

Shakespeare’s Globe plays at Pace University. New York Classical is mounting Henry V on Governors Island. The Cell and the Hive Theatre are offering a gay Midsummer Night’s Dream in Chelsea. There is Shakespeare in the Parking Lot on the Lower East Side and Shakespeare on the Sound in Connecticut. In the spring, the Classic Stage will deliver Bebe Neuwirth—Bebe Neuwirth!—in another Midsummer’s Night. (This one will be straight, but presumably it will be high-kicking.)

So when news came a year ago that the Royal Shakespeare Company would visit New York for this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival, bringing along a full-size replica of its new theater in Stratford-Upon-Avon, which it would assemble inside the vast Park Avenue Armory—when all the world is a stage, so too, by definition, are its century-old drill halls—there were several reactions.

First came excitement. A troupe from what is arguably the world’s premiere Shakespeare company, an ensemble of performers who have been working together on these plays for three years, was coming to town, bringing 41 actors, 21 musicians and 10 stage managers to stage 44 performances of five legendary plays over six summer weeks. And they were bringing their own theater. This was to be an event of such overwhelming scale, prominence and snob appeal as to immediately become a lead contender for Cultural Event of the Season.

The second reaction, more cynical—this is, after all, New York—was to detect a hint of unbecoming vainglory in this exercise. It is indeed lovely to have the R.S.C. in town, just as it is always lovely to have foreigners visiting. But, what, our theaters aren’t good enough? You need a stage? We’ve got dozens. And more to the point, in this time of tightened private belts and strapped public budgets—elsewhere at Lincoln Center, City Opera has become a destitute nomad and the Philharmonic has cancelled its free summer concerts—spending $1 million to transport a bespoke theater seemed excessive, if not obscene.

The Royalists overran the Armory as Independence Day approached—the first performance was July 6—and the press was invited for a preview as the portable theater was unpacked and assembled. Michael Boyd, the R.S.C.’s Britishly charming and wry artistic director, and Alan Bartlett, its head of technical design and construction, led the tour, and, as artists do, they provided another frame for considering the enterprise. This 975-seat piece of luggage, constructed in Stratford and schlepped to New York in 46 shipping containers is, they argued, not an extravagance but a necessity. To come to town, spend a mere 15 days in preproduction, and then mount five fully staged plays in repertory—this couldn’t be done without a prebuilt, preset, prelit, preblocked stage. Despite the attention it’s getting, the theater’s not the thing; the plays are. The theater is logistics.

And so finally, perhaps still skeptical but also now disarmed, a theatergoer arrives for opening night, ready to climb aboard this towering assembly of logistics for As You Like It, the first of the five plays. And one starts to be reminded of some of the things Mr. Boyd had said during that press preview: that the Elizabethan-style theater, with its thrust stage extending deep into the audience and three levels of seating on three sides of that stage, provides a deeply intimate setting, with no one more than 15 yards from the stage. That he loves the sense of community, of actor and audience, achieved when theatergoers see both the performance and, past it, the rest of the audience across the stage, reacting.

Then the play starts, and it is wonderful. The actors are excellent, and they are so close you can nearly touch them. They are unamplified, and their voices echo through the wood-covered theater. (If there’s a quibble, it’s that the space is too echo-y, sounding like it comes with built-in reverb.) There are theatergoers leaning forward on the railings of the mezzanine and balcony, raptly engaged. The air-conditioning is operating suboptimally, so the ushers have given out cheap Chinese fans, and the audience members are sporadically waving them. It feels almost like you’re in some Olde English time. It feels at least unlike sitting in any other theater in New York.

The theatergoer has been converted.

A few nights later, you’ll be back for a wrenching Romeo and Juliet, dark and gothic, but with the titular lovers anachronistically dressed as modern, headphones-and-Converse kids, the better to emphasize their teenage impetuousness. The air-conditioning will be working better that night, so no Chinese fans, and you’ll miss them, miss catching the motion in the corner of your eye, miss that visual reminder than you’re part of a bustling, actively engaged, neo-Elizabethan crowd.

Get thee to an Armory.

editorial@observer.com