The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1486 Monday, 3 June 2002
From: Takashi Kozuka <
Date: Monday, 3 Jun 2002 11:04:06 +0100 (BST)
Subject: Why Hawthorne Hated the RSC
[From the Sunday Times (02 June 2002)]
Cover story: Sir Nigel Hawthorne's autobiography:
Extract: The last battle
Shortly before he died, Sir Nigel Hawthorne wrote this savage account of
working for Britain's premier classical acting company, the RSC. He
found it arrogant, heartless and rude.
I had no intention when I set out on my autobiography to arrive at the
end of it with even the slightest trace of bitterness. I embarked on it
with a spirit of fun, even if my intention was to sprinkle it with a few
samples of straightforward honesty.
I'm not by nature a vindictive person. But the time has come to be harsh
about the Royal Shakespeare Company, the RSC. I believe they deserve it.
I know that currently they're having problems and that there's a lot of
bad feeling, but one thing is clear. They don't know how to behave
towards the people they employ. As an actor, I have been horrified by
their arrogance and their lack of support.
After I appeared in The Madness of George III, with all its associations
with King Lear, a number of people tried to push Shakespeare's great
tragedy in my direction. I managed to fend them off as gently as I
The exertion of playing that massive role for a long period - it's never
just a short spurt - was too daunting even to think about. In addition,
the play had problems, particularly in the first scene where the king's
relationship with his favourite daughter takes a nose-dive for no
discernible reason. So the answer was no. I didn't think King Lear was a
good idea for me. Too many problems, but thanks all the same.
Four years passed. One day in 1998 I was writing some letters in my
office when the phone rang. It was Adrian Noble, the artistic director
of the RSC, telephoning from New York. Would I play Lear for the RSC,
its millennium production, to run over a six-month period, opening in
Tokyo, playing a month at the Barbican in London and then up to
Stratford? It was all a bit much to absorb, but in my head I ran it over
and over and over again: arguably Shakespeare's greatest play, over the
millennium, my first time at Stratford. I was the right age, 69, and, if
I was thinking of retiring from the theatre after 50 years' service,
what better vehicle to choose for an exit? I forgot to ask the name of
the director. It turned out to be Yukio Ninagawa, Japan's most
celebrated interpreter of Shakespeare. I discussed the proposal with
Trevor Bentham, my partner, and accepted.
Ninagawa came over to London and, through an interpreter, we discussed
some of his ideas. He let me have his drawing of the set. There were
small circular objects littering the ground that he identified as rocks.
I asked their function, but he deflected the question with a good deal
of smiling and bowing.
He was an extremely likeable man and I thought there was a good chance
that we'd work well together. If anything went disastrously wrong, we'd
have the paternal, richly experienced, solid and dependable shoulder of
the RSC upon which to lean - or so we thought.
I had a whole year to prepare, so I jumped into my car and eliminated
from every bookshop within miles anything remotely to do with King Lear.
Each day, wherever I was, whatever I was doing, I worked on King Lear,
trying to unravel some of the conundrums that had so often beset me.
One thing I simply couldn't get out of my mind was a little woodcut left
me by my beloved grandmother that I have in my spare room. I've owned it
for 50 years and heaven knows how long my grandmother had it before
then. Since she'd been a student, I supposed. It is a storm scene by
Hiroshige, the great Japanese artist. Lashing rain. People with
umbrellas struggling to force their way through diagonal lengths of
string, or so they seem, representing the atrocious weather.
The RSC set aside a rehearsal room at the Barbican for three days so
that the cast could get to know each other a bit before we went to
Japan. A visit from Cicely Berry, the official voice coach (whose flat I
used to clean when I was out of work in the 1960s), was promised. She
had done a studio production of the play for the RSC, I think, and saw
herself as something of an authority.
Cicely walked in, scattering photocopies of a Shakespearian sonnet about
the floor like a farmer distributing seed. The actors obediently scooped
them up and she invited us to read through the sonnet, each actor
entrusted with one line. That achieved, we sat down to read the play.
Miss Berry sat next to me, which was a bit unnerving, and announced with
authority in a loud stage whisper: "Lear is a Marxist play."
I remember the first reading of a production of Pinter's The Caretaker
when the director announced to a startled cast: "Now, as you all know,
this is a play about Jesus Christ." The silence that followed was every
bit as full of meaning as one of Harold's own. Under such
circumstances, you have only two options -get up and go home, or be
patient and hope the director will return to his senses.
The flight to Japan was a long one, and I have since suspected that my
enforced sedentary position over such a lengthy period was the harbinger
of the deep-vein thrombosis that clotted my arteries and later led to so
many of my health problems.
Japan looked to the newcomer like a large number of cities seamlessly
joined together, but I loved the area of Ikebukuro where we were
staying. The girls were as pretty as dolls, and in their anxiety to
avoid looking identical they dressed themselves in skimpy frocks, wore
massive moon boots, painted their faces, dyed their hair orange and
remained as alike as peas in a pod.
We all gathered on the first day in one of the vast rehearsal rooms for
the first of many receptions. There was a huge Japanese turnout. The
entire crew, the assistants and representatives of the various
departments - wigs, make-up, publicity, sound, music. Everybody was
dressed in black. After the speeches, Ninagawa invited us to look at the
theatre. The massive procession followed him down a very long linoleum
corridor at the end of which were some doors. With a proud flourish, he
flung them open.
I don't think I've ever been more shocked in my life. The monumental
set was already in place, fully painted. A team of black-uniformed
experts were busy focusing the lights. Backstage there were racks of
practice clothes, swords, bows and arrows, spears, carcasses of wild
animals for the hunting scene, various items of furniture, including a
throne, cloaks for disguises.
It was almost as if the Japanese were saying: "All right. You are
members of the Royal Shakespeare Company over here to perform King Lear.
We have invested