The troupe, currently touring the US with Sir Ian McKellan as its marquee star, carries the mystique of ancient traditions. But its history belies such perceptions.
In the arts world, there are few organizations with the brand recognition of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The RSC's current US tour features Sir Ian McKellen playing the role of King Lear, a casting coup which has further burnished the RSC's reputation as the world's foremost interpreters of the Bard.
But is the RSC really the definitive Shakespeare theater troupe? And are tickets to a string of US tour dates worth the thousands of dollars some scalpers are selling them for?
The RSC, in its current form, really only dates back to the 1960s – which is not even as old as some American Shakespeare troupes. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival dates back to 1935, and the Virginia Shakespeare Festival boasts that its city, Williamsburg, has been home to productions of the Bard since 1753.
History does play a big part of the RSC's success – it's just measured in decades, and not centuries. What the RSC does – and has done well since 1960 – is repertory. This is on display in the current US tour, where on some nights Ian McKellen plays the title character in "Lear," and on other nights plays the smaller role of Sorin in Chekov's "The Seagull." (Most of the RSC actors play parts in both productions.)
It was Sir Peter Hall who established the RSC as this kind of repertory theater in 1960. By making the RSC into a full-time company, it quickly became home to a generation of first-rate English actors, including Sir Ian Holm, Helen Mirren, and Vanessa Redgrave.
"Since Peter Hall's days, the RSC stands for actors coming together to perform for a extended period of time," says Vikki Heywood, the RSC's executive director. "People who come and see our work are aware of this – that it isn't the result of just six weeks of rehearsal, but rather a creative journey that the actors have taken."
So is the Royal Shakespeare Company really "royal?" While there is a connection between Shakespeare and royalty – it is believed that Queen Elizabeth attended a performance of "The Merry Wives of Windsor" – it wasn't the Royal Shakespeare Company her majesty would have seen that evening. That would have be the bard's own troupe, named "Lord Chamberlain's Men."