Do We Need Shakespeare Productions Without Stars?

The Guardian today proclaims that British Shakespeare productions need more than scene-stealing stars. The article cites recent productions with Big Names, such as David Tennant’s Richard II in Stratford-Upon-Avon (see my review), Simon Russell Beale as King Lear at the National Theater, Jude Law’s Henry V in London, and Coriolanus, with Tom Hiddleston at the Donmar Warehouse (which I’m seeing tonight in a cinema as part of the NT Live series of broadcasts).

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In my short tenure here in the UK, I’ve seen a half-dozen live Shakespeare performances. The Richard II with David Tennant showed that the “star,” the former Doctor Who, imbalanced the production. Tennant was excellent, but it was hard for other actors to play against someone of his stature, and the overall play lacked direction. Compare that to two of the brilliant RSC productions I saw this year without A-list stars: Hamlet, with the brilliant Jonathan Slinger, and Stephen Boxer as an astounding Titus Andronicus. Both of those plays felt like they were “company” productions, where no one actor, even the lead, stood head and shoulders above the others.

The big problem with A-list stars in theater is that the play becomes inaccessible. I very much wanted to see King Lear with Simon Russell Beale, but the day the tickets went on sale – the minute they went on sale – there were no more. They had all been sold to “members” before the official public sale date. (Which made me wonder why the National Theatre bothered to send out emails telling people that the tickets were going on sale.) Apparently, they are going for up to £2,000, which is patently ridiculous for a theater ticket.

To be fair, many plays are broadcast to cinemas in the UK. This year, I saw several plays from the National Theatre’s NT Live series, including Kenneth Branagh’s impossible-to-get-tickets-for Macbeth in Manchester. It’s a good way to see plays, but it’s nothing like the actual live experience of being in a theater. But it makes me wonder if many of these plays are being staged with big stars as much for the cinema broadcasts as they are for their performances. Branagh’s Macbeth played in a church with some 280 seats; it had a run of just a couple of weeks, so only a few thousand people could see it. (Compare that to one night in the RSC’s main theater, which has 1,000 seats.) With broadcasts to cinemas – not just live, but “repeat” broadcasts as well – in the UK and around the world, there’s probably a decent return on investment.

I think we need more “company” performances of Shakespeare. The RSC is leaning toward stars now for some of its plays, but not all. The Richard II sold out very quickly because of Tennant’s participation, but the coming season does not have any stars of his caliber. The London stage is different; they don’t have a Shakespearean company – other than at the Globe – and any plays put on in individual theaters need A-list actors to sell tickets, making them harder to see. It’s a complex paradox, and one that clearly does not favor average theatergoers.

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