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

Feb. 21st: At a distance the Kennedy Center looks like a warehouse or aircraft hangar; is somewhat better as you get close a stone pavilion with emblematic tent poles on all sides. Two quite lively sculptures in front by Jurgen Weber; ‘America’ and ‘War or Peace’ (given by Germany).

Wood panelled auditorium in Eisenhower Th. produces something close to an echo and all the hard surfaces mean that every backstage sound is audible everywhere; as was the case for the, as usual, scrambled in first performance at 7.30p.m. Much more wing space here, dressing rooms modern and well organised… but a severe theft problem, we are told. Interesting because, at the previous venues, once the outer door was secured, the locals expressed surprise that we should query the safety of our belongings. The place is a warren, however and, perhaps via the cleaning staff, stuff can be lifted. Laura, our props girl, says dealing with the staff here has been straightforward and efficient; bright, comprehending people, she says they are, which is why the technical side was ready on time. However, the Washington Post chose to attend the first, rattly, show for which we got only a moderate response from the house. Warned by Adrian, long distance, to expect half the usual reactions from Washington audiences.

Feb. 22nd: Today’s obligatory, extra, matinée played to near silence but a good show, and very fast! Then, to our surprise the evening, official press, performance, though starting reticently, built to a very warm response indeed by the end. The company given its first, more or less all house, standing ovation which was probably genuinely felt. (There is a tendency with Americans to find an excuse for standing up at the end of a show to prove to themselves that they believe the event was fine enough for them not to have wasted their ticket money.)

Afterwards, a formal dinner given to nine members of the company and invited guests in the Terrace Restaurant at, I believe, the concert hall end of the building. Walked through vast, red carpeted, chandeliered halls to get there; supposedly traversing, at one point, the largest/longest? room in the world. Though we had been warned a few social events would exclude some of the company, yet there was a flurry of `principled’ hurt expressed by a few; as it turned out very much centred on Monica Dolan, emotionally backed by Daniel Evans. So, the nine selected to go were drawn out of a hat and, at first, none of the leads was picked. However, as members elected not to attend, the bits of paper were thrown in again and, in the end, all the obviously desired persons emerged except for Dan Evans which is why I found myself there.

The joint hosts were James and Mary Evans (he is vice president of the K.Cr.) and Wafiq Said an, I’m told, Lebanese long standing governor of the R.S.C. supposedly seventh richest man in the world. (The third richest man Prince someone or other was also supposed to be present as were Mr. and Mrs. Colin Powell.) Evans and Said spoke, replied to by Alex Jennings. The purpose of the function was to gather as many influential people together as possible with a view to interesting Americans in providing longterm funding for the R.S.C. and its world touring. Pleasant: found, again, that people here talk more readily, openly and without `side’ or shyness than you find in England; or as I found in Stratford, my most concerted experience of similar functions. Spoken to by a relaxed, interested ex-State Department official with a name beginning with Z? (involved at one time with the reunification of Germany, under Bush I think) and Sylvia Symington who turns out to be a musician and composer and felt that the one thing under par in the ‘Dream’ was the music there is general agreement about that; chatted to other people, including one more lady studying drama all seemed truly to have loved the evening’s performance. A higher than average gathering of good looking, healthy persons (few obvious fatties, or twisties or warties) and an especially noticeable scattering of beautiful women consorts. Money buys quality. Strongly reinforced my sense of an articulate, sophisticated, competent elite forming a thin crust on a vast body of uninterested and uninvolved folk (as in Chicago, I mean).

Feb. 23rd: Noon invitation to a reception at the British Ambassador’s residence on Massachusets Avenue. Hosts, His Excellency the Ambassador and Lady Kerr. Both charming, and the latter quite delightful and confirmed that her sister is a theatrical landlady in Jesmond in Newcastle. The sister has asked to be remembered to some members of the company who’ve stayed with her. In the end several of us signed a card to the woman (though I hadn’t stopped at her digs). Coveted `Armada’ screen. Ran into an ex-patriate who has been here earning in commerce but at pains to explain that he’d replied to an ad., been cast as ‘Wall’ in a ‘Dream’ and has progressed to being offered a Master’s course on the strength of some or other performance. Not giving up the day job yet, but confirms to me that much of America is really hanging around waiting to be taken up by show biz.

Approached by an engaging, smiley, little older man who said he ran a magazine and was very interested in the present state and future of the R.S.C., having heard of the changes to be made in policy and wanted to know the reasoning behind it; I conjectured my best (including a general detestation of The Barbican as a building to work in). He wondered when would be the right moment to do a `story’ on the R.S.C. and I said, now. He had started by throwing out a concern about the increasing gap between the tiny minority who could get something from Shakespeare and the rest of the population and spoke of his interest, with others, in beginning to repair the growing chasm. This man’s wife joined us and confirmed her husband’s fears. When I asked what the administration’s level of interest was she said very low; bumping around the bottom with the environment, though she thought that was creeping up the list and so it turned out she was sympathetic to ecological causes and, even, to the root of the problem as I see it over population, which also impinges on employment.

The chief of consular services daringly characterised Washington folk (the ones that subscribe to the Eisenhower and who we are, at present, meeting) as self important people who know they have to be seen at events like ‘The Dream’ but please to note that there isn’t a black face around, although this is a black city.

(Jonathan Pope, funding/sponsorship head, later explained that all this activity is about management seeking a vast pot of cash to invest so that the income may permanently keep the company afloat; that Lottery money will be available, but only if own starter money is found and confirmed that there are plans to reconfigure the main house at Stratford and its facilities, radically).

Feb. 24th: Playing in W. is the strangest experience so far. At the matinée, though the response was slight, we received cheers at the end, and some stood. In the evening, the response was minimal and I had a sense that the audience would have preferred to be somewhere else. Throughout the tour there has often been a section at the back of the house which has laughed and reacted with contrasting stolidity down front. Is it something to do with pricing policy? Certainly the corseted, stuffy body of the house swamped the handful of people, tonight, who might have joined in the fun. Though Lindsay Duncan came partially to life for the press performance she is now so dull again, especially in her first two, crucial, scenes that I’m sure she sits on the play; rather important when the audiences are so inert anyway.

Feb. 26th: Just after noon walked to The National Mall and looked at the Western monuments; the Lincoln, the Korean War, the Vietnam War Memorials. Odd air of a whole, flat, sparsely treed, formally set out area celebrating dead things. Inevitably dull figures; the Korean soldiers crossing territory, strangely mannerist, phoney (effective at a distance). The faces in the granite wall, like partly developed photographs, striking. Two stalls, near the Vietnam wall, help pursue the vets.’ obsession that Hanoi is still holding prisoners. Not the faintest hint that the U.S. might have wrongly engaged in the war; only sarcastic cartoons showing academics and the privileged avoiding conscription.

The wording of Lincoln’s second inaugural address interestingly subtle in implying mixed motives to both warring sides (that and Gettysburg inscribed on stone). Politicians, then, must have been speaking to an informed élite; it’s impossible to imagine that level of complexity in the speeches of the current Republican nomination race or radio or TV news troubling to report anything at that level. Some stirring echo of Delphi. Were the offerings of better, average quality there when they were new? I seem to remember the guide book suggesting that quality varied a lot, but that some were outstanding. That was a monument to self-aggrandisement and a crowing celebration of triumph in battle.

Feb. 28th: Walked up Virginia Avenue and past the White House to the National Aquarium in the Commerce Building. Sad. Says it is the oldest aquarium in the U.S., was housed everywhere, including at the foot of the Washington Monument and boasts that it is now free of government funding! and able to go it alone. Just means it is run on a shoestring, tucked in its basement, yet… manages to be surprisingly informative, especially about human pressure on the aquasphere. Two entirely conflicting panels, however, about the depths at which colours fade; a difference in thousands of feet. A few mummies visiting saying ‘eel’ and ‘fish’ to very young children; two English biologists?, one telling the other how fish are often injected with colour to make them interesting in tanks pointed to some, slightly blue, glass fish; some older people. I wonder what will happen to the place.

On the way back, confirmed the extreme dullness and the extreme dominance of the W.M. Note that here, too, the street living poor use supermarket trolleys to carry their things in S.F., especially round the civic centre, there was a whole trolley culture. A variation here is to sleep, not only in doorways, but on top of the gratings which serve as exhausts for building hot air heating systems.

Mar. 1st: Morning, visited the Natural History Museum (part of the Smithsonian Institution, which has fifteen museums and the Zoo) towards the western end of the Mall.

Very well laid out. An overt selling of evolution as the successful theory for explaining why things, in general, are as they are. Very good use of its `stuffed’ creatures and fossils to integrate various logical and chronological stories; for example, the story of the enlarging, adapting horse aided by an animated video. Also, a very useful section on the local birds. Noticeable, how obsessive is the use of ‘showbiz’ imagery to put things over. To explain interdependance, they describe the top predators and feeders as the ‘stars’ of the show, but tell how they cannot survive without the existence of the `chorus line’, the plankton and krill. Similarly, in an animation about a possible route to the beginning of life in the planet large screen, in colour the building blocks of the early combining chemicals are shown as wiry, spidery figures in a chorus line trying to link arms; incidentally, helping to introduce the idea that left hand must link with right to make a continuous chain. Also, very good ethnic sections on peoples of both American continents.

A sign of the outstanding abilities of that thin crust of highly educated and, apparently, highly enlightened people who live and can emerge in this society. (As witness the work of Jonathan Weiner, ‘Darwin’s Finches’ and Steven Pinker, ‘The Language Instinct’, which I’ve been reading; one American, the other Canadian and both Jews, I think!) Yet, when you listen to the level of political debate and reporting and sense the wilful dulness of comprehension about how social and natural systems work, the separation is startling. Characteristically, the Hope diamond is on display and there is a room full of modern kimonos decorated with landscapes and scenes from nature; however, much less emphasis on the commercial application of everything than usual.

Tour of the White House arranged for members of the R.S.C. at 1.30p.m. A ‘lady in waiting’ cracked jokes about English marines and U.S. marines with reference to the burning down of the White House in 1812; before our pretty articulate and competent and humorous security officer tour guide, Matthew’s, taking over. Only the sandstone shell of the building survived, though M. told us the fire was unintentional. Remarkably modest building the original central block no larger than an average English country house. The West (1902) and East wings (even later) built on after. Furnishing also modest as I expected (though it surprised at least one member of the company). Decent, derivedin style furniture and, almost uniformly second rate paintings, mainly portraits of incumbents and wives. A better than average painting of James Audubon with his gun; an early conservationist and deadly sportsman. There is a small theatre where the family sees shows and Clinton rehearses his speeches. A remodelled oval room (one of several, supposedly devised to aid mingling and acoustics) linking the building at ground level to the lawn where important signings and staged greetings take place.

Clinton has redecorated with some mid-nineteenth century (I think) French wallpaper of figures in American landscapes the paper was about to be destroyed. Told of tall presidents and short presidents and one (Madison, I think) who led troups into battle). Matthew eventually got over his jumpiness at the Jennings, Duncan, Lynch kids running around; some astonishment at the readiness to let us sit on the furniture; at one point M. indicated his gun and took out some other device a gas stunner… I don’t know?

One main state room used in early days by a president’s wife to hang up her washing, so that it would not be seen by passers by who, at that period walked right by the house. Not shown the Oval room, which is in the W. wing nor, of course, the door against which Kennedy is supposed to have banged his women in the lunch hour. Individually ordered presidential sets of china on show in a case; pleasant enough, especially Lincoln’s purple; photographs of adaptations and alterations, including the oval room. Nixon’s version unspeakable bright mid blue sofas and yellow carpet. Only seven or eight rooms are available to the family the rest are guest rooms and kept in as close a style to their original date as possible. Nothing at all like European palaces.

An early example of the U.S. seal was pointed out to us now, apparently, the eagle’s head points in the direction of the olive branch it is holding, not the thunderbolts, the symbol of war. Introduced to a cat kept on a leash, but presented in a public relations capacity. In the charge of a young man who implied that he was a special hand of the Clintons. Cat, large, black and white called ‘Socks’. He has socks. Apparently a stray who wandered into the governor’s office in Little Rock, Arkansas and has been with C. for five years. Supposedly used to the public, constantly patted, held and stroked but also inclined to bite!

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

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