The Rose of Kingston project has tempted Sir Peter Hall back into running a theatre building, and one can see why. Even in its current shell form, it feels like a remarkable space. A modern building based on the Rose Theatre whose remains were uncovered on Bankside a decade ago, Rose of Kingston (no definite article in its name, at the insistence of an unnamed famous dramatist, possibly Harold Pinter) combines classical lines and dimensions with a playability that will equally suit modern work.
When finished, the auditorium will hold 1000 people, with 200 groundlings seated on cushions on the floor and the rest in three rounded galleries. The stage is a wide, shallow lozenge shape, unlike the great square thrust of Shakespeare's Globe and allowing for better communication between actors and the whole audience. It's a fine, intimate design which, as Hall says, will when finished comfortably seat only 150 people less than the National Theatre's main Olivier space but in one-third of the cubic volume. Hall is so enthused that he is already presenting productions in the half-finished space, as yet consisting of bare concrete walls and semi-permanent seating. It's a fairly overt strategy to obtain press coverage in order to secure the funding necessary to finish the construction, but one is happy to support that goal.
The opening (or half-opening) show is Hall's more or less modern-dress As You Like It from his 2003 season at the Theatre Royal in Bath, with only some minor recasting. Rosalind is another role which suits Hall's daughter Rebecca, not only physically for the cross-gender disguise device (she is indeed "more than common tall" and, her hair tucked into a trilby hat, can carry herself with plausible boyishness) but in terms of Hall junior's native genius for getting under the skin of a text and making her character seem luminously human.
There's little wild passion lurking under the surface in the Forest of Arden between the disguised Rosalind and her beloved Orlando as she (posing as Ganymede) professes to cure him of his love for Rosalind by wooing "him", Ganymede, as if "he" were indeed Rosalind (this plot is the very devil to describe succinctly), and little of the gender-bending sexual ambiguity which often also arises. What there is, in Hall's characterisation, is a recognition of the sadness and romantic torment of these goings-on even amid a "festive" comedy.
The oppressive court of James Laurenson's Duke Frederick is decked out in fascistic black costumes with military berets; otherwise, the work of scene-setting is done with seasonal back-projections and a range of floorcloths rather than by any set to speak of (there being no backstage or fly-tower in which to store it). Michael Siberry, who played Orlando in the first Stratford Shakespeare I ever saw, is now a cynical, resonant Touchstone; Philip Voss has exactly the right mixture of gravity and a hint of gaiety as the melancholy Jaques.
It's not a revelatory production... at least, the revelation is not located within the play. And, even to a card-carrying cheerleader such as me, the unforced delights of Rebecca Hall in performance take second place to this preview of what seems sure to be an excellent new theatre. Roll on proper completion in (it is hoped) a year's time.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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