A world to hide virtues in?

17th May 1996 at 01:00
Theatres have a special relationship with schools: they are the sole manufacturers of a commodity schools are obliged to dispense. With such a leverage on teachers, and with such a need to recruit new customers, I find it astonishing that theatres take their special relationship so lightly, not to say thoughtlessly. As, for example, at one of the recent schools' mornings at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre.

Not that the theatre was in any way to blame. It is a host theatre, not a producer, and cannot be held responsible for the actions of its guests. On the contrary, it puts together an exciting programme, and takes its schools work seriously. It is good news that Edinburgh has come up with its annual grant of Pounds 300,000, as well as money to stop the ceiling falling down.

No, the fault lay with the guests, and it was all the more surprising because the visitors were none other than the Royal Shakespeare Company, one of our national centres of excellence, on tour with their celebrated production of Twelfth Night, and accompanying it with workshops in the theatre and in schools.

I sat in on the morning workshop before the matinee, along with some of the 60 schools booking that week, from the city, from Tayside and the Borders, even as far afield as Keswick. Some dozen members of the company, sitting with studied casualness on the front of the stage, talked about their parts in the production.

The trouble was, no one had told them how to do it. One of them talked in complete darkness, some fluently in inscrutable technical language, some talked while facing backwards, and when one of them actually invited a handful of young people onstage, it was not to demonstrate stage craft but to perform singing exercises.

At the end, the actors did a couple of tricks to send us off to lunch in better spirits, but by then an hour of opportunity had been lost. Maybe, the way things are, the workshop organiser has to be lucky with what she gets, but I can't help thinking that, if the RSC is going to do this sort of thing at all, it ought to try to do it properly.

After lunch, and with most of the 1,900 seats taken by the schools, Twelfth Night was rolled out with most of the style we expect of the RSC, and to the evident pleasure of the audience. This is the Ian Judge production of 1994, largely recast, touring from Portsmouth to Edinburgh as part of the company's policy of quitting London, to give more of the nation's taxpayers a little of what they've paid for.

You can hardly go wrong with Twelfth Night, and for the RSC it is an evergreen audience-pleaser, a bundle of characters and a crackerjack of a plot that, once ignited, leaps slyly and delightfully to its conclusion. John Masefield thought much the same; as the programme quotes him: "One can see Twelfth Night played night after night, week after week, without weariness. Even in a London theatre."

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