The Royal Shakespeare Company’s U.S. Tour – Robert’s Diary Chapter Eight

Mar. 18th: With somewhat more than half the company, accepted the management offer of a morning bus to New York, so as to arrive at a reasonable time. (9-43a.m. to 2-50p.m. door to door, with a stop.) Aware of vast tracts of poisoned, industrial land on the way in to N.Y. – which I’ve glimpsed from the air in the past. Flat at Executive Plaza on W. 51st and 7th Avenue, excellent. Fine view of the sunset through the buildings and across the Hudson River from the eighteenth floor.

Mar. 19th: Linda Barrett came over and we had lunch at M.O.M.A. Apparently, we were looking out on a new sculpture garden – but I don’t remember it well enough from my last visit, in the eighties, to recall how the museum then was. Met Linda again at the West Side theatre on W. 43rd St. for an 8p.m. performance of a Nicky Silver play, `The Food Chain’; I’ve recently read `Raised In Captivity’, bought in S. F. The latter a better play, but the one we saw had excellent writing in it. (Linda has seen it with the original cast.) Linda’s famous mother (famous for being the agent who suggested `Gone With the Wind’ for a film) has died quite recently and so Linda should be `comfortable’ – except for not being married, nor in a relationship. Her building, which she lets in association with a partner, is now getting into profit after years of legal battles with big property business and after renovation costs; but her house on the shore in Connecticut is still under threat from Amtrak; Congress has changed the law to prevent an old safe-guard from operating in the owners’ favour. She brought me a few house-hold items and fifteen dollars’ worth of travel tokens!

Mar. 20th: Took the subway for a 10-45a.m. call to a rehearsal room at 543, W. 16th S., the Manhattan Theatre Club. Rehearsed with Adrian Noble then, at 3p.m., call to the Lunt-Fontanne. Said to be a 1400 seater, it has one huge balcony. I see I’m on the front of the theatre in a large ‘photo’, for the first time. Anna and Lucy arrived just as I was leaving for the theatre, at 7-15p.m. Reaction to the first preview performance, 8p.m., was tremendous, especially in contrast to Washington. As good as the best responses, almost, in either Stratford or London. Acoustic seems very good.

Mar. 21st: 11-30a.m. call to theatre for notes. Linda was at the flat when I returned at about12-45p.m. There to gad about with Anna and Lucy. 3-30p.m. call to rehearse at the theatre. At about the quarter, before our second performance, a member of my cast of `Fearless Frank’ knocked at my dressing room door. He muttered his name, but I didn’t catch it, though I remember the line of parts he played. (We performed at the old Latin Quarter night club – which, I think, has now been pulled down; like Lime Grove Studios and Sale Grammar for Boys!) He was very nice about `Starveling’. Is himself standing by in a show across the road called `Victor/Victoria’ (dreadful, I hear from Linda, with Julie Andrews in it). Last night’s response was not a fluke; there’s a sense of knowing theatre, it’s currency, in the New York audience. Anna and Lucy in to see the show (two complimentary seats each, only, for five of the previews offered to the company by Elizabeth McCann). At last, Adrian is seriously working on Lindsay; the result is, after half the tour, she is giving a real performance. Odd, that she was able, on her own, to go so little along the right road for so long, especially in contrast to Emily Button, her understudy; just a matter of her temperament, perhaps. (Won an award for `Les Liaisons Dangereuses’ in which she was sultry; something of her stock-in-trade, but not enough for `Titania’, or Shakespeare.) Still phrases and stresses uncertainly, at times, compared with Emily.

Mar. 22nd: Anna and Lucy off to Canada by Amtrak crack of dawn to see Icelandic descended relatives in Toronto. More rehearsal; only one or two minor `in’ theatrical happenings still seem to evoke a response different from that we received in the U.K. This includes the reaction to overt sex; is this a residual puritanism that I wondered if I would notice as I came East? Yet the language which I heard used in Silver’s play was balked at when we did `Fearless Frank’. Anyway, Adrian has slightly modified a moment in `Titania’s’ meeting with the ass (though, in truth, it was a bit of playing evolved with Stella Gonet and suited her better than Lindsay).

Beggars here, all black, use a polystyrene cup as standard gear, as some did in W. Lots of other street activity, in N.Y., though; buskers, pavement artists and sketchers, three-card and watch, jewellery and scent merchants. Many shops still open as I pass them after the show at about 11-10p.m. Pavements and road-ways still rough, as I remember them – but nothing to compare with Washington pavements which were regularly, and almost universally, buckled; many by tree roots; never asked whether the cause was sandy or swampy soil, or municipal neglect. Subway trains are, indeed, now graffiti free. Part of that N.Y. policy to reduce crime by spending small sums on cleaning up localities and environments and making people feel responsible for their surroundings and so, in a way, inhibiting their innate slobbishness; an attack on `squegee men’, too.

Mar. 25th: Lunch at her place with Linda (554 E. 82nd St.). Talked through some possible play titles to take back to London; partly deriving from the reports she has now done for years on American playwriting for a Scandinavian producing company. Evening, went to the Cineplex Odeon on 8th Ave. and 50th – part of a rather good looking new building complex called Worldwide Plaza, with one notable high tower – where a union (S.A.G.) run subscription club shows major movies to which members can enter free, plus one guest. Saw `The Birdcage’, with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane; an American re-make of `La Cage Aux Folles’ and very good, too. Mike Nichols directing and Elaine May did the script adaptation; Gene Hackman terrific as a conservative senator.

Mar. 26th: Rehearsals on stage with Adrian and Sue Lefton. Adrian has now taken out the humping in the bower at the end of part one; reduced to a tableau of them ascending with the donkey’s arm resting on `Titania’s’ waist; did not seem to diminish the curtain, but will it enhance it?

Mar. 27th: Public service radio best yet, in N.Y. Seem to play no music at all! B.B.C. contribution is as large and regular as in S.F. (It was minimal in Washington.) A very good discussion, this morning, about the persistence of slavery, for example; a hundred thousand forced prostitutes in Bombay, apparently in a district the size of Central Park; it provides funding to three or four Congress Party politicians as well as the national Mafia. It’s also the centre of an A.I.D.S. pandemic in the sub-continent. Have been listening to an evolving story about the resignation of a much-vaunted N.Y. Police Commissioner, William Bratton (once chief of Boston). Over-all crime has dropped here by 27% and murder by 40% since Mayor Rudolph Guiliani came in especially on an anti-crime platform and appointed Bratton. However, there are reported personality clashes and it is now being said that Guiliani is pushing out Bratton well before next year’s re-election campaign in the hope that the crime rate will continue downward and that he, the mayor, can take credit rather than the cop. Perhaps another sad example of something good that humans have devised, about to be spoiled for self-aggrandisement and pride.

Mar.28th: Radio tells me that the N.Y. fire chief is taking over Bratton’s job. He is a boy-hood friend of Guiliani’s; some reports that the rising Police Department officers are pissed off. Should be interesting to keep an eye on the crime rate – and morale.

At to-day’s notes Adrian tells us that the reviewers will come in, mainly, over the next four performances. What’s Sunday’s press show about, then?

Mar: 29th: Last night, walking back from the theatre, crossing Broadway near the ticket booth where it joins 7th there was a worse-than-usual traffic bottle-neck; so congested that a tall policeman was controlling at the lights. One taxi, well over the stop line, was threatening to block cross traffic, so the cop called to the driver to move to the right and join a line of cars. Instead, the taxi edged left, where he was blocked. The cop yelled, `The right, you bum!’ I couldn’t imagine an English policeman saying that, even in these times, whatever he might have been muttering under his breath. Shared the moment with a crossing Swedish couple.

Adrian gave us a valedictory speech about the loss of verbal to visual imagery across the globe and how we can keep words in play. Not seen him so passionate at a conceptual level before. Believes that the picture, and international capital, are swamping the planet and that it’s a bad development; talked about central piping of movies from Los Angeles across the world in ten years’ time. Apparently Sunday is not a press night, but an opening night – I don’t get it.

Mar. 30th: Also, hear that there is no reduction in price for previews; and there was a thin house at the Sat. mat.!

Anna and Lucy back last night from Canada. To-night, they are picking up Amber Donebauer from J.F.K. airport; a class-mate of Lucy’s; there is only a day’s difference in their ages – L.’s the elder, and they were at Stamford Brook Montessori together.

Mar. 31st: All of us, including Amber, walked to the Empire State Building. Saw `Skyride’; a tricked photographic impression of how it might be to fly a `Star Trek’-type space craft low under New York’s bridges and between its skyscrapers, but for the trip then to go wrong; so there are lots of encounters with trucks, pedestrians and fruit stalls – must have been fun to shoot – ending with calmness, as control is recovered and the craft floats between the Manhattan high rises, lit up at night. Effect helped by the moving seating, well synchronised with the pictures. Lots of warnings that the ride is not suitable for the infirm. Interested to see that the `captain’ of the ship, addressing the audience directly, was a very old actor; a help to re-assurance, I suppose. I didn’t stay to go to the observation platform. As it turned out, they decided not to either because the queue had got even longer, so strolled back up Fifth Av and caught the end of my lunch.

5p.m. `opening night’ of the `Dream’. From something Alan Hall (our stage manager now that Eric Lumsden has gone back to London) said when he quoted briefly from a review over the tannoy – Alan described the critic as having jumped the gun, he presumed because the man couldn’t contain his delight with us (or his editor couldn’t) – from this it appears that there is an agreement amongst the critics that they shall attend over a series of four or five previews but withold their copy until an agreed date, in our case I suppose Monday, April 1st.

An extremely hysterical response from the audience, laughing before they had heard the joke, especially in the earlier part of the show. Partially settled down, but I haven’t heard a comparable reaction since the previews of `Twelfth Night’ in Stratford – though there were still things to which they didn’t respond; there was an actual `ahh’ of pity at `Moon’s’ discomfiture; which helps confirm my suspicion that Americans are mildly shocked by the rudeness of the `Court’ to `Starveling’ and, therefore, not in a state to enjoy his blunt retort, as audiences did in England; that particular aspect of `show biz’, in any case, seems unfamiliar to them as a basis for stage humour.

There was the traditional Broadway supper, after, at Sardi’s on 44th St. to which Anna, Lucy and Amber came. Grander than the last occasion (`Fearless Frank’) in that our party was on three floors (`F.F.’ was, I think, just on the top) with the angels on the ground, doomed to be disappointed of the company of the actors who tramped upstairs. Elizabeth McCann was nicely dressed up for the first time and not in some kind of jump, or Arctic, suit. Carol Shorenstein Hays pleasant and so were many others, for some reason, coming up to me specially. Barbara Rosenblatt grabbed me from behind and played `guess who?’ She was in `I Ought To Be In Pictures’, by Neil Simon, which I directed at Buddy Dalton’s theatre in Camden Town. Found a table on the first floor. Buffet food, but good and enough of it; also, prowling waiters with canapés. Good atmosphere, kids enjoyed it, wielding their autograph books. Alex: a sense of a bond with the oldest `Dream – ers’. We agreed we deserved a campaign medal. At the flat before eleven; no waiting for the reviews; don’t know if anybody stayed for that.

April 1st: All went down to South Ferry and caught the boat to Liberty Island. Had one of the most awful junk meals ever; and over-priced. All these famous sites and monuments are run by the National Parks’ Service and they, clearly, have given one company the island’s sole food concession; it’s operated on the great American corporate principle of `nothing for something – whenever we can get away with it’. Reminded me of the grotty end of the amenities at Yosemite. At the kids’s behest, queued for several hours to climb the stairs inside the Statue so as to see the view from inside her crown. So, saw the way she was built with riveted copper plates round an iron girder core. The structural design supplied by M. Eiffel. Rainy, misty glimpses of downtown Manhattan and bits of the lady’s green arm, torch, fingers and book (dated 4th July 1776) and a spike of her crown – the seven, representing the seas and continents.

A glance at the two exhibitions, one of media images of her and the other a museum about construction and maintenence, mainly. Walked round her, after, (she seems over-dressed, over-swathed and I seem to remember something about the designer, Auguste Bartholdi, wanting her to be bare breasted, originally!) before catching the ferry to Ellis Island. Caught the last, excellent, half hour’s guided tour again performed by a park ranger. Pretty ironic, as to the `Land of Opportunity’ reception and treatment of the European poor. Twenty-nine questions had to be answered but three were key: did the immigrant have a job to go to? If he did, he was deported so as to preserve American jobs. If he was not employed but ready to work that was O.K. What was his trade? Certain trades were acceptable, but shopkeepers not – they had to show they had twenty-five dollars before they could enter (this was the price of a steerage fare; a second class fare was fifty dollars). Led the ranger to detail the various tricks and dodges for getting past the inquisition desks. Woman could not enter alone, so all kinds of hasty alliances and marriages were fixed up.

Nonetheless, according to official figures, only two per cent of the total were returned to Europe. The sick were put in the hospital across the harbour inlet; it was the responsibility of the shippers not to embark ill people, so they bore the cost of any health care or treatment. The `kissing post’ was where long separated members of families were re-united. Three chalk marks were used in the initial lightning examination, to designate male, female and sick. (I have read, in the past, something about de-lousing, but to-days’ guide didn’t mention it.) He pointed out that Emily? Lazarus’ poem, `A New Colossus’, talking of a powerful woman beckoning and welcoming across the ocean, offering to take in and protect the huddled masses, was written three years before the statue was put up and its content wholly figurative – another preferred untrue myth started there. The whole set up ceased to be used in 1924, after about thirty years of mass immigration. Only time for the briefest glance at some photographer’s impression of New York street characters and life in the early art of the century.

April 2nd: All to Bronx Zoo. Off the subway which, by then is an elevated way, at Pelham Parkway which meant that we entered through the very fine copper gates, the tree of life standing on tortoises and culminating, at the top, in lions and so on. Gaudi-esque. Remember it, from the eighties, as being remarkably advanced comparatively, giving the lions space and landscaping. This has gone even further and is still evolving; as usual, a lot of winter work going on. Saw snow leopards actually active (at Howletts I’ve seen them somnolent up a tree platform with tail hanging down – to lose heat, apparently) which delighted Amber and especially Lucy. The best American zoo so far; the conservation message absolutely unequivocal here, though admitting its complexity. Two counters at the exit of the rain forest exhibit, registering live births and acres of forest being cut; with a final message saying that you will only care to save what you love and to learn to love it helps to understand. The New York Zoological Society (headquarters here, I think) appears to be the centre for Wildlife Conservation International which has projects similar to W.W.F.’s but with especial emphasis on the Americas.

Back at the Lunt-Fontanne a sense of flatness after the hype. Still, to me, a remarkably good performance – though Alex seemed dissatisfied. Have the impression that the reviews have been reasonably supportive but not raves; with at least one cretin indulging in silly word-play and a display of his Shakespearean knowledge in the style of some of the reviews of other shows I’ve stumbled across, on our travels, which remind me of the kind of half-baked, pompous nonsense we get in the English provinces; however, actors still are affected, if briefly, in spite of their own good sense.

April 3rd: Charles Evans, (C. Manag.) put his head round my door just before the matinée to say `not to worry about the small houses to-day’. They are due to the Feast of Passover – most of the theatre-going audience, still, is Jewish! I seem to remember this from last time I was here; the second house seemed pretty full, however. According to Desmond the reviews have been `fantastic’ except for the New York Post and Times which had reservations; and the Village Voice was venemous – but, D. says, the writer has submitted several plays to the National Th. and been turned down; gave a worse review than ours to Ian McKellen for `Richard III’ and worse still for Branagh’s `Hamlet’!

April 4th: Vivienne rang at about ten in the morning. Says she had to make a fuss again in order to provoke her next appointment; however, seems to have succeeded insofar as she is to be admitted to hospital next Tuesday- provided there is no `emergency’. Says she has said she cannot continue as she is; her pain is extreme. A ray of sunshine; one morning she spotted a red blob on her lawn. On examination it proved to be a gnome. Another arrived in her front garden and a third turned up on the bonnet of her car. Clearly, someone is trying to cheer her up, though no-one is admitting responsibility – she says the gnomes make her smile – and hopes to have another for Easter. Her lot visited Cambridge and Alex (my nephew) is going to take the offer of an English course there.

To the Natural History Museum for about twenty to twelve. Quotes from Theodore Roosevelt incised in the walls. Thumping stuff about manliness and right living and thinking – and living and sacrificing for a cause. Orientation, a snack, and then joined a tour taken by a volunteer. Roosevelt was an important founder/supporter; donated his twelve-year-old’s collection of a couple of dozen eggs and a few insects to start the ball rolling; first U.S. president to win a Nobel prize – for arranging a peace between Russia and Japan in 1906 (Jimmy Carter was next). R. also held important New York offices. The entrance Rotunda called after him, as well as a memorial hall downstairs. The great many dioramas throughout the museum seem to be a peak of their kind. The habitats carefully researched seventy to eighty years ago and then authentically evoked with papier maché models of animals derived from artists’ sculptures, finished by stretching real skins over. Plants made of wax and the setting, of other non-degrading materials, so that the exhibits are almost maintenance free. Result is a hybrid between the saddest stuffed animal displays and the brilliantly organised teaching set-ups I described at the Smithsonian in Washington. Also, at a brief look, some excellently descriptive modern displays.

Guide took us to ‘Lucy’ amidst the human evolution section which seemed good at a glance. We ended with an obligatory look at the special amber exhibition – for Amber. Seemed first class; the history, mining and collecting, the kinds, ages and specimens, with myriads of trapped tiny creature, including a frog and, lastly, amber in art, showing a couple of Russian craftsmen on site re-constructing an amazing amber room made for a tsar by Germans in the early eighteenth century. Sections of work on show, all inferred from black and white photographs plus a few remaining bits. A treasure that got moved in the war, was hidden by the Germans and has never been found. Left them to it at about four twenty-five.

Read Chapter Nine of Robert’s RSC US Tour diary. 

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